The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Director Lee Daniels has taken a section of the life of a jazz legend, Billie Holiday, and brought to life a new biopic on the singer. Originally scheduled to be released in December, the movie wound up being sold to Hulu, where it was released this weekend.

The film follows Billie Holiday during a period of her life that she was being pursued by the Federal Department of Narcotics. The feds claimed they were looking at Holiday because of her heroin use (Billie Holiday did spend a year in prison because of this), but the movie and book this was based on, claimed that another of the fed’s purposes for their dogged pursuit of Holiday was to prevent her from singing a song called “Strange Fruit.” “Strange Fruit” was a controversial song that dealt with the topic of lynching and helped lead into the era of civil rights.

However, the fed’s had some inner issues as Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who had been assigned to keep track of Holiday, ended up in an affair with her.

Andra Day played Billie Holiday and she was tremendous. Day was easily the best part of the movie. While much of the movie was slower and a bit muddled, Day’s performance elevated the film to a much higher level. This is an especially impressive trick as Day has not had any major movie acting experience. She also did much of the singing in the film as well and she was wonderful. The music of the movie was another strength.

Many of the scenes felt disjointed as the complexity of Billie Holiday’s life did not seem to come together here well. There were sections of the movie that dragged along, but any time Day was there, there was a new life to the scenes. The inclusion of “Strange Fruit” is one of those examples as it did not seem to be woven into the story arc effectively. They leave it and come back at other moments and it did not blend well with the drug abuse of her life.

In the end, the reason to see this movie is Andra Day in the lead role. She does an admirable job both as a singer and an actor.

3 stars

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