Film Review: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” Gets a Hit and a Miss

Winning the most recent Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama, newcomer Andra Day shed 40 pounds, even started smoking, so that she would look and sound like the iconic Billie Holiday. Without Day’s charismatic on-stage Billie and her ability to make us root for Billie even when she is behaving badly, director Lee Daniels’ (“Precious”) movie would not have worked.

Andra Day stars in “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday”

Screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks based her script for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” on a chapter from Johann Hari’s 2015 non-fiction book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.”  Both Parks and Hari were interested in exploring “how Billie Holiday entered the drug war.”

For ten years, Holiday had been singing in nightclubs and cabarets in New York, Philadelphia, and other large cities. She immortalized songs like “All of Me,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,”  “Them There Eyes,” and the haunting “Strange Fruit.” When audiences asked for this song, she would say, “I gotta be pretty high to sing that one.”  Based on a tone-poem that describes a lynching, the lyrics visibly move her as she sings, “A fruit for the crows to pluck/ For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck/ For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop/ Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) had grown in power since the 1930s and by 1947, its director Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) was ready to take on the jazz world where many performers were known to be drug users. He promised some prominent Congressmen that he would not take on the likes of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker but would focus on the trouble-maker who insisted on singing the controversial “Strange Fruit.”  (In the movie’s opening credits, we learn that Congress had not as yet passed an anti-lynching law.)

Knowing that a white FBN agent would not be able to gain access to the jazz world, Anslinger assigns a Black agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to the case.  Handsome and still in his military uniform, Jimmy shows up backstage after one of Billie’s performances. Although they are both married, there is an immediate attraction between them and he is soon witnessing the heavy drug use that precedes and follows most performances, a use that will lead to her arrest in a Philadelphia nightclub as she sings “Strange Fruit.” Billie’s attorney advises her to plead guilty to drug charges and request hospitalization to overcome her habit. She takes his advice, but the judge sentences her to a year in prison.  Because she now has a criminal record for drug use, she will lose her license to perform in nightclubs.  But Billie is a serious and much admired jazz musician and her records are selling around the world. After her release from prison, her  agent is able to book Carnegie Hall, where Billie performs before a sold-out audience.

Throughout the movie, we get flashbacks to Billie’s childhood living with her mother in a brothel and enduring sexual abuse. We also get brief scenes depicting  her marriage to her manager, Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), who controls her money and physically abuses her. Ironically, the most loving relationship she seems to have is with Jimmy, the agent who has turned her in to the Bureau but comes to regret it and quits his job with the Bureau.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has flaws and it is at times difficult to follow.  Loosely structured and often frenetic in its pacing, the movie seems awkwardly edited. There are characters (such as Tallulah Bankhead) who appear briefly  but are dismissed too quickly. We also miss the enjoyment of even a moment of levity or triumph in the film’s two hours and ten minutes of screen time. The genius of Holiday’s talent and the loyalty of her fans must have provided her some joy, if only briefly, during her career of memorable performances. We would like to have witnessed at least one of those moments.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” can be streamed on Hulu.