The United States Vs. Billie Holiday Review: Lady Day Takes the Stage in Tepid Biopic

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The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (TUSVBH)  is a film of soft fades, saturated lighting and Hallmark-esque dialogue.

The film, helmed by Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), trods through the life of virtuoso jazz-singer and activist, Billie Holiday (Andra Day). Daniels frames TUSVBH from the perspective of a late-in-her-life Holiday reflecting upon the hardships that, despite her incredible success, she never escaped. Her relationship with addiction, told through drugs and abusive relationships, highlights the troubles that were (and are still) endemic for Black women.

This is a film that gets a rise out of shock. Storytelling choices, such as the frequent black-and-white transposing of scenes and sweltering score, don’t so much as elevate the mood as it does reduce it; coating what is already confronting subject matter with a plastic lining. Holiday’s life, an already unbelievable pill to swallow, does not require the sentimentality in production elements to be dialled up to the nines. 

The subplot regarding Holiday’s sexuality (true to Hollywood filmmaking) never fully forms. It merely becomes alluded to as a series of wistful glances that serve to show complexity-of-mind, rather than respectfully denote the issues had by queer people.

The drifting off into recollections doesn’t work as it had in the manner of Rocket Man, but instead mistreats the subject matter in an uninspired, borderline manipulative, fashion. What should evoke instead deflates. Holiday’s performances on stage should demonstrate her captivating ability but instead deals with camera-work that jarringly shifts from superimposed shot to the other. It was as if the film were shot on a laggy connection. It feels as though Daniels, in his attempt to show grace, reveals a lack of understanding regarding the use of a camera.

Not without its redeeming qualities, TUSVBH succeeds in establishing that there was more to Holiday than just a compelling, gravelly voice. Her entanglement with the law, brought about by the pressure from the establishment to prevent her from singing ‘Strange Fruit’: a song which denotes the lynching of Black Americans, provides the audience with an ‘in’ regarding the showcasing of Holiday’s contributions to the civil rights movement; a legacy that carries through to this day.

The film builds towards Holiday’s performance of ‘Strange Fruit.’ Its eventual arrival demonstrates a rare instance where Daniels refrains from over-complicating the shot. It is masterful work from Day. The film rides upon the performance of its leading star, with relative newcomer Day composing herself with the hard-edged demeanour of the prodigious singer. She might just earn herself an Oscar, it is that good.

As undoubtedly important as the themes are in Daniels films, there is no denying his indulgent storytelling style. He has never been one to layer on the dramatics in short supply. It is a shame Daniels dares to trivialize Holiday’s life with this soppy flare. There is a richness to Holiday’s story that demands a treatment that does not undercut its seriousness. It is not found in unnecessary technical-whizbangery and inflated dialogue. 

Director: Lee Daniels

Cast: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund

Writer: Suzan-Lori Parks, (based on the novel Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari)

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