Lee Daniels’ latest film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”, which was released on Hulu in this February, is utterly trite and disappointing in many aspects. While surely intended to be a sincere tribute to the life and career of one of the greatest African American singers in the 20th century, the movie unfortunately does not have provide much insight or empathy on the long and miserable plight of its real-life human subject, and the overall result is depressingly unpleasant and mediocre despite having one of the most notable breakthrough performances of this year.
After giving us some brief historical background of its story at the beginning, the movie instantly moves onto how things were quite hard and difficult for Billie Holiday (Andra Day) in 1947. While she was quite popular and famous as one of the best blues singers in US around that time, she caused considerable noises as often singing a certain song about the horror of Southern lynching upon African Americans, and that accordingly turned her into a target to be investigated and cornered by FBI, who surely had lots of stuffs to be used against her due to her long history of drug addiction.
Ordered by a high-ranking FBI official named Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), an African American agent named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) approaches to Holiday as a young World War II veteran, and Holiday and her inner circle members soon let him into their world just because she happens to be interested in this dashing dude. Although she is currently married, that is not much of a problem to both her and her present husband because he mostly cares more about getting a bit of whatever she will earn, and we later come to learn that she has also been particularly quite close to a well-known actress named Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) (As some of you know well, she was once rumored to be the main source of inspiration for Bette Davis’ unforgettable heroine in “All About Eve” (1950)).
While it seems that Fletcher is also attracted to Holiday despite believing that arresting and then sending her to jail is the right thing to do for his boss’ ongoing war against drug, the situation is turned upside down as she is finally arrested with incriminating evidences on her drug abuse. Holiday certainly feels betrayed after belatedly coming to learn of who Fletcher really is, and then she is sentenced to more than one year of incarceration at her following trial.
In the meantime, though he receives some good words from his boss, Fletcher becomes conflicted about whether he is actually on the right side, and then he is ordered to approach to Holiday again not long after she is eventually released. Due to losing her license to perform at clubs and cabarets in New York City, she has no choice but to perform here and there around the country, and she and her colleagues are naturally followed by Fletcher, who is soon welcomed again into their world despite what he did to her.
As Fletcher comes to know more about Holiday and then care more about her, the screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, which is based on Johann Hari’s nonfiction book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”, tries to develop emotions between Holiday and Fletcher, but it often falters and stumbles due to its scattershot storytelling and weak characterization. As trying to handle numerous incidents in Holiday’s life and career within 2-hour running time, Parks’ screenplay ends up merely scratching the surface, and it does not generate any genuine sense of life and personality to be felt from Holiday and several other main characters including Fletcher. As a result, the subsequent romance between Holiday and Fletcher feels contrived at best and gratuitous at worst, and, to make matters worse, Fletcher remains more or less than a functional plot element without much human quality or motivation to discern.
As he previous did in his several works including “Precious” (2009), Daniels attempts to bring some bold style and energy to lift and spice up the story and characters, but, sadly, his efforts only lead to more distraction and annoyance. For example, the deliberately unrealistic sequence where Holiday shares the horror of Southern lynching with Fletcher is surely striking on the surface, but this feels rather hollow due to not having enough narrative momentum and characterization to support it, and the same thing can be said about the finale, which is supposed to be sad and tragic but only comes to be soapy and phony instead.
It is a shame that many notable cast members of the film are mostly wasted in their thankless roles. While Trevante Rhodes helplessly struggles with his under-developed role, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Tyler James Williams, and Rob Morgan simply come and go as required without utilized that well, and you know there is really something wrong in the movie if a dependable trouper like Morgan does not leave much impression to us despite being one of the supposedly substantial characters in the film.
Anyway, the movie is not a total failure at all thanks to Andra Day, who recently received the Golden Globe Award in addition to receiving an Oscar nomination for her performance here in the film. She surely tries her best, and the result is as commendable as Diana Ross’ Oscar-nominated turn in another Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), which, despite all its flaws and weaknesses, is relatively more entertaining besides supporting Ross’ impressive acting well.
In conclusion, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is redeemed to some degree by its lead actress’ committed acting, but it also often bored and annoyed me due to its superficial story and characters as well as its misguided storytelling approach. In short, this is a rather wretched misfire which will definitely waste your time, so I recommend you to invest your free two hours to “Lady Sings the Blues” instead.