Movie Review: United States Vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

Now streaming on Hulu.

In a film filled with the oft-sung promise of showing “All of Me,” a meandering narrative fails to do justice to a legendary chanteuse. Newcomer actress Andra Day’s breakthrough success in the title role is inversely proportional to the failure of storytelling in Lee Daniels’ The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (D). In the 1940s, Holiday is targeted by the government in an effort to racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” This premise is stretched into a misbegotten biopic that rarely finds its focus. Daniels is a director who doesn’t shy away from dark psycho-sexual, violent and drug-induced depravity; but his penchant for wallowing in the worst impulses of his subject’s life and times simply punishes his subject and audience. Trapped in this very bad movie is a “star is born” level performance by Day, a raw and honest portrait brilliantly acted and sung. She brings fearless vocal chops and searing screen presence to the occasion and is met with a zigzagging creative vision that consistently shortchanges her committed work. In breathing life into a short and tragic character, Day stands on the shoulders of giants Diana Ross and Audra McDonald who have portrayed the singer before and compares favorably with a low-key freshness. Regrettably, an unfocused and unpleasant narrative, an often dimly lit parade of loosely connected episodes, and a chaotic tone adds up to a sleepy, sloppy slog that keeps its central character at a distance. Classic jazz music and sometimes lovely production design and costumes mask a truly confused production. The men in the film, Garrett Hedlund as a one-note federal agent and Trevante Rhodes as a complex love interest, are mediocre in underwritten roles. Didn’t we just see other better films about sting operations to thwart racial progress and period pieces about making music against a backdrop of social upheaval? Expect accolades for the new Lady Day and little else about this tedious film.

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