THE UNITED STATES vs BILLIE HOLIDAY
THREE STARS The FBI didn't want Billie Holiday to sing Strange Fruit, but her voice would not be silenced.
DRAMA US #BILLIEHOLIDAY
Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes
Her voice would not be silenced, a point director Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS) makes crystal clear in this muddled yet oddly compelling biopic about the legendary Billie Holiday. ‘Strange Fruit’, her signature song about black oppression was not welcomed by government authority. It drew attention to the appalling behaviour of white America, something J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI would not countenance. Their solution was an undercover operation to ensure Miss Holiday’s drug habit would keep sending her to prison and keep her song out of the public ear. Parallels between Holiday’s circumstance and that of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH) are painfully obvious.
Just as painful is the disappointing way Daniel’s fails to get a grip on the story he’s trying to tell. Is this a docu-drama, a biopic, a romance or political thriller? In part, it’s all of these yet none that come together in any satisfying way. Long meandering sequences add nothing to the drama while other scenes are perplexing if not pointless. Much of the problem is a thinly sketched narrative with supporting characters who are perhaps even thinner. It’s compounded by language and structure that feels too modern for the times yet not modern enough to claim themselves a fresh interpretation (like Tony McNamara’s THE GREAT for instance). Consider FBI agent Fletcher and Holiday’s part-time lover (Trevante Rhodes) whose spectacular gym-toned body simply doesn’t ring true. It’s a small thing, yet one of many that accumulate enough mass to crush the film.
Now, having said all that, Andra Day’s central presence is so astonishingly good you can almost forgive everything that surrounds it. An Oscar contender with good reason, this is one of the truly great performances of all time. Day embodies the wit, courage and fear of Holiday, a woman whose determination and sheer bloody mindedness turned her from a mere celebrity into a living legend. Underpinning this is Day’s singing voice, a voice so good you’ll convince yourself she’s lip-synching. Scenes in which it’s just her, Holiday and a song will leave you breathless, and to Daniel’s credit, he’s at his best when focussed on a wonderfully complex character like Holiday. Together, he and Day have done a spectacular job, earning themselves a slice of cinema history.
While the totality of THE UNITED STATES vs BILLIE HOLIDAY is not a great film, and Ms Holiday deserved better, among the many forgettable scenes are some truly astounding moments. They are worthy of your attention.