The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Review)

Outside of an impressive central performance from Andra Day, this film has absolutely nothing going for it. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a poorly constructed, shallow and misguided essay that at best simplifies an icon – and a vital figure in history – and at worst is a complete disservice. This film, with its jumbled narrative – sporadically employing framing devices and shifting perspectives – ends up presenting Billie Holiday merely as a drug addict who occasionally played one song but mostly didn’t. Her relevance to history, and to the anti-racist struggle, is diminished to simply performing the song Strange Fruit on certain occasions, going against the cruel stance of the government.

Obviously, Strange Fruit is a very important song. But you need to already know this for the film to have any impact. One would hope this is the case, but while the film ultimately relies on this song as its sole narrative constant, it doesn’t do enough to explain its import, genesis or wider resonance. An important struggle, and the impact of Billie Holiday in general, is much more than just playing this song to an audience, yet the film limits her impact to only this. Her doing these performances are brave, and are worth representing in cinema, but the film shows no understanding of the context around this. In one moment, where the film suddenly remembers it opened with a framing device so returns to it – at around the ninety minute mark (at least) – Holiday explains the purpose of the song to an interviewer that just doesn’t get the point. Her answer is that it reminds the government that they are killing Black people – and while this is true, even this feels like a great simplification.

The film simply does not seem to understand Billie Holiday and what she did outside of singing songs, having sex and doing a lot of drugs. So, it just alternates randomly between these activities and at points attempts to push a narrative onto them. It is a reminder that making a biopic is hard – that you need an actual focus beyond just here is the historical figure. This does not have a focus and is an utter mess. Even the musical performances, though beautifully sung by Day, are plagued by horrendous direction and woeful editing (though, this may be the editor doing the best with what they have). We switch between oddly chosen shots, with shoddy looking fades and the overall presentation actually distracts from the performance. Though, it is of a piece with the film where every directorial decision is overtly the wrong one.

Dialogue is also an issue – a big one. The way characters speak has the stilted quality of a bad high-school play, as they blurt out overt exposition, explain things too each other or say the most on the nose things imaginable. Not only does nobody speak like a human, nobody acts like a human. Almost every performance is incredibly stilted, clearly stemming from poor direction – though the performers must take some share of the blame. This is because Andra Day transcends this, the script and the director are clearly trying to drag her down but she keeps pulling herself up. She cannot take the film with her but she is head and shoulders above every other element. She is able, through her performance, to show tenacity, charisma, vulnerability and deep sorrow. It is hindered by what she has to say and what she has to do, but the specifics of the performance save it. It is the right performance for Billie Holiday in the wrong film. It is a good imitation but feels like more than this, feeling completely natural – as if she was born to play the role.

This is such a shame, because this film really is a disservice to Billie Holiday. If the film has a focus beyond her playing Strange Fruit, it is on how she is continually abused and wronged by those around her – especially the government, and related systems. This is all very important but it is presented with such inauthenticity that any vital impact is lost. What this means is, tragically, the film itself replicates the thing it is trying to present and critique. This feels like yet another wrong put against Billie Holiday and, Day aside, is devoid of merit.

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