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Film Review: ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ is an Incomplete Case

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Legendary jazz musician Billie Holiday is an icon worthy of a truly excellent biopic. Unfortunately, her story is saddled with the mediocre effort that is The United States vs Billie Holiday. Instead of digging into her talents and her tragedy, it’s content to exist on the surface level. We get drug addiction and the United State government as an omnipresent boogeyman. Both of these things can make for compelling drama, but they swallow up the person at the center of it all. Instead of signaling how Holiday was ruined by forces beyond her control, it simply leaves you wondering what all the fuss is about her. That’s an unforgivable sin for a film of this nature. Not only is it a massive disappointment, it does a disservice to its own subject matter.

The United States vs Billie Holiday is Seberg redux. What do I mean by that? Much like the Kristen Stewart pseudo-biopic of Jean Seberg, this is a tale of the government ruining the life of a celebrity. The similarities also extend to the lead performances of the films being about the only thing worthy of praising. Now, when Seberg came out, I wrote that if the movie was any better Stewart would have been a Best Actress nominee. Here, could the outcome be different, despite similarly flawed material? Perhaps, but the two sure share an inglorious distinction. They take an individual worthy of the cinematic treatment, focus on the least interesting aspects of them, and leave you shaking your head.

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This is the story of how Billie Holiday (Andra Day) was targeted by the government for repeatedly playing her controversial song “Strange Fruit.” Refusing to give in, she’s sought for arrest whenever she plays it at a show. Eventually, Billie is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation, hoping to bring her down for good. Led by Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the sting works and Billie, a drug addict, lands in prison. When she gets out, Jimmy is still around, slowly falling in love with her. Against the advice of her band and friends, she allows him on the road with her, beginning an affair.

The closer Jimmy gets to Billie, the harder it is for him to do his job. At the same time, it becomes clearer and clearer that the Feds are not going to ever give up on hassling her. Jimmy may be moving to Billie’s side, but his government handler Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who has made it his mission to take her down, is not going to give up without a fight. History tells us the tragic conclusion to this story.

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If there’s a saving grace here, it’s Andra Day. She’s the one part of the film that rings true. Her performance is deep and painful, full of soul and invested in material not worthy of her skills. The rest of the cast, including not just Garrett Hedlund and Trevante Rhodes, but Natasha Lyonne, Rob Morgan, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, among others, are thoroughly wasted. Hedlund is a sneering and one-dimensional villain, while Rhodes is an audience cypher. Day emerges unscathed, but it’s easy to wonder how much better it all would have been if the movie worked in the slightest.

Lee Daniels is the absolute wrong choice to helm this biopic. He’s not a subtle filmmaker, so the movie suffers from his broad approach. Now, scribe Suzan-Lori Parks doesn’t help much, as her screenplay focuses on all the least interesting elements of Billie Holiday’s life, but Daniels doesn’t help any. His approach to the material is closer to a Lifetime movie of the week, devoid of details but full of piss and vinegar. Holiday deserved better.

The United States vs Billie Holiday falls well short of its intended mark. Aside from Andra Day, there’s nothing to latch on to. The fact that it’s in Oscar contention at all should give us all pause. The material and the execution, aside from Day, are just not up to sniff. Chalk this one up as a Lee Daniels misfire, one that’s masquerading as an Academy Award hopeful. It’s a pretender, not a contender, ladies and gentlemen.

SCORE: ★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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