Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 5 minutes, Director – Lee Daniels
In response to her song Strange Fruit the FBI attempt to bring in Billie Holiday (Andra Day) on narcotics charges.
In a film about the entire United States seemingly being against singer Billie Holiday Lee Daniels’ latest does a good job on focusing on her relationships and love-life. It’s the start of a mixed bag of conflicted focuses in a film where the title refers to the often left behind trials and arrests Holiday went through when investigated for narcotics by the FBI. This was all to silence Day, whose song Strange Fruit, protesting the lynching of African Americans, was causing mass controversy at the time. However, this harassment throughout the later years of her life leads her to meeting FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). The pair certainly form a sexual relationship and share a handful of experiences together, however how much of a romantic relationship this is seems to fluctuate throughout the film depending on how Rhodes is being viewed. An agent by day, lover by night type of scenario seems to be in play.
Luckily, to keep things some what grounded, and slightly consistent, is a sensational Andra Day in the leading role. Day, with seemingly little acting experience (aside from brief appearances in Marshall and Cars 3), gives a sensational performance as an artist, despite her platform, struggling to have her voice heard. Trying to break barriers but having new ones put up as she gets close. Yet, when in her element her songs ring out. During musical performances Daniels seems to change his style somewhat. Sweeping the camera across the stage and the audience, capturing an up-close spectator’s view of the concerts and the effects that they have on those who have paid to attend. This seen most prominently when Holiday performs in-front of a non-segregated crowd at Carnegie Hall.
Similarly during a hallucinogenic sequence the almost silent actions and flashbacks that occur seem to be choreographed. The actors seem to rely more heavily on their facial expressions and body language to convey the flow of each snapshot of the titular figures past. It creates the feeling of a dance number that helps bring you back into the film after a number of minutes of jumping from point to point in the various elements of the busy narrative. It’s certainly these more stylistic moments that work the best within the film, ones that use the visual format well and make something aside from standard biopic beats. It breaks the otherwise conventional nature – a number of moments are part of larger flashbacks as Holiday sits down for an interview (with Leslie Jordan) where the opening question asks what it’s like to be a person of colour. It simply leads to an initial point that, like a handful of others in the film, is either quickly forgotten or simply stopped before they have time to properly gain steam.
And yet, throughout the whole jumble of ideas, points and potential storylines there’s always some form of connection with the film. That with Day’s belting performance, which also helps to capture Holiday’s distinct jazz and blues styling, which makes for a serious awards contender. Her performance is worth the viewing itself, and there’s certainly enough within the film in terms of stylistic sequences and more cinematic moments to keep things flowing. While some story points might distract from the main attacks, defences and trials that should be the core focus of the film, and the full extent of the drama isn’t quite felt, there’s just about enough within this mesh of ideas of potential narrative points that work and click with the actors and the better linked moments and arcs of the film. The film is certainly a jumble, luckily there’s enough decent content dotted throughout to make it a worthwhile enough jumble.
Even if much of The United States Vs Billie Holiday doesn’t live up to its title, focusing on a number of other elements of the singer’s life in a jumpy mess of plot and flashbacks, the more visual, stylistic moments help it along and Day’s performance alone is worth the watch.