The United States vs. Billie Holiday | Chicago Reader
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The United States vs. Billie Holiday

A necessary yet poorly edited film undercuts the power of both Billie Holiday’s story and Andra Day’s stellar performance. Day masterfully channels every aspect of the American jazz legend, from her haunting singing voice, to her glamorous and rough-around-the-edges swagger. Director Lee Daniels possesses reverence for Lady Day, dutifully capturing her sequins, her signature gardenia, and her habit of shooting up heroin. Yet he hops around the story, unable to surrender to the languid mood, killing the buzz. Opening with a three-way narrative, the script by otherwise brilliant playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home From the Wars series) awkwardly has each character highlight Billie’s insistence on singing her sobering lynching protest song “Strange Fruit” over and over again. Loyal Billie fans will forgive these missteps to hear the rarely told story of Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (Garrett Hedlund) and his terrifying obsession, which led him to jail and destroyed the career and life of the world-famous star. The best moments of the movie highlight the warmly raucous, drug-fueled backstage carousing with Holiday’s entourage of chosen family. Like Judas and the Black Messiah, the story heavily focuses on her ill-advised relationship with and betrayal by FBI informant Jimmy Fletcher, a steady performance by Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight). The second half of the film eases into a relaxed pace, delving into Holiday’s heartbreaking upbringing and trauma, and a visually-arresting dream sequence that realizes the full beauty of Daniels’s vision. Like Billie herself, the film is beautifully imperfect.

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