"The United States vs. Billie Holiday" stars Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, and Natasha Lyonne. Released on Hulu on February 26, 2021, the film chronicles jazz singer Billie Holiday's fight against the government.
The film was directed by Lee Daniels, who also directed "Shadowboxer", "Precious", "The Paperboy", and "Lee Daniels' The Butler". It is based on the 2015 book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. We're one step closer to this year's Critics' Choice Awards, which means it's time for me to check out the latest nominee that was released on Hulu last weekend. It was only nominated for Andra Day's performance as well as hair and makeup, but hey, it's better than nothing. This was another film that was originally set for a theatrical release until Hulu came along and acquired the distribution rights to it due to the pandemic closing down theaters. The film also marks filmmaker Lee Daniels' return to film, whose last movie he directed was released eight years ago. He was busy working on two television shows for Fox during that time: "Empire" and "Star". I have only seen one film from Daniels, and that's "The Butler" back in 2013, which I thought was a respectable historical drama. A bit too long in my eyes, but it had its moments. You can say that I haven't been following his filmography that much. However, that didn't stop me from checking it out anyway because I'm always curious to see why the movies are nominated in the first place. Plus, I was extremely unfamiliar with Billie Holiday and her career. Is it jazzy enough to honor this fact-based story? Let's find out.
The film is based on actual events surrounding Billie Holiday (Day) in the late 1940s. She became targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics led by Harry J. Anslinger (Hedlund) and Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes) in a growing effort to racialize the war on drugs. Their main goal was to prevent Holiday from singing the controversial song "Strange Fruit", which is not about fruits. Rather, it served as a protest against the lynching of African-Americans and signalized the beginning of the civil rights movement. In other words, this is another part of Black History that shouldn't go by unnoticed. This doesn't come as much as a surprise for me considering the number of recent films we had that provided untold historical events. That automatically makes this a must-see for everyone. Still, it needed to have the right amount of quality and emotion to earn its importance in its storytelling. Unfortunately, the film didn't have that type of rhythm in its soul to deliver a story like this. While it's easy to admit that Holiday's music and the "Strange Fruit" controversy are as dazzling as its main star, the film saw Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks struggling to balance the sentiments and the focus of its topics, such as drug addiction and the song itself. It's a by-the-numbers and uneven biopic that honors the troubling singer's struggle with narcotic addiction and the government yet fails to make it more absorbing than it should have. Most of the moments shown in the film felt either rushed or disappointedly bland as Daniels constantly relied more on the stylistic choices for Holiday's musical sequences rather than the importance of the story. It also didn't help that the film was 20 minutes too long. The pacing was fine for the most part, but I didn't think it needed to be that long. It wanted to feel as significant as the other films centering on Black History like "Judas and the Black Messiah". Sadly, the unbalanced narrative kept it from reaching that significance. On a more positive note, the film did offer some suitable performances from the cast, most notably Andra Day in her first leading role. She really surprised me with her Golden Globe win last weekend, and after seeing her performance for myself, I can see why. In terms of representing the character's emotional state, both mentally and physically, Day proved to me that she could act just as well as she can sing. Even her attempt at providing Holiday's accent was top-notch. Trevante Rhodes also turned in a good performance as Jimmy Fletcher, and Garrett Hedlund was compelling in his role as the devious Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger is almost similar to the judge in "The Trial of the Chicago 7" and J. Edgar Hoover in "Judas and the Black Messiah" in terms of his personality. He's the biggest butthole in the history of buttholes. The film also provided some solid achievements to recreate the look and feel of the 40s and 50s, such as Andrew Dunn's cinematography, the production design, and the costumes. The editing can be a bit questionable at times, especially during a couple of sequences where it used plenty of fade transitions. They're more distracting than they were compelling.
Overall, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" has some soul in its jazzy body. However, it lacked the heart needed to provide a narrative that's as meaningful and emotional as Holiday's controversial song. Andra Day admittedly shines in an otherwise disappointing drama that couldn't hold a candle to the other worthy films dealing with race discrimination. It's something that I would recommend to people who are familiar with Billie Holiday but not to those who prefer an award-worthy depiction of the singer's struggle.