Biopics are often glamorous or sanitised depictions of real-life stories, leaving us wishing for more earnestness. In the case of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the opposite is almost true. In fact, the film is so bleak that one cannot help but feel that much of the singer’s legend has been befouled by this new warts-and-all telling of a very specific aspect of her life.
Billie Holiday was one of the most transformative jazz singers of all time. She was an African American woman who rose to fame through adversity and hardship, and with an entirely unique vocal range and style, she broke all kinds of rules. Hers is a powerful story made all the more significant thanks to her song “Strange Fruit”, which tells the story of black lynching with graphic detail and a sombre beauty.
The song was recorded in 1939 and has since been named the greatest song of the century by Time Magazine. Its power is irrefutable and hearing Holiday’s raw vocal delivery is simply chilling. It is the song, which also led to the American Government waging a relentless campaign against her, that is chronicled in director Lee Daniels’ (Precious, The Butler) latest film.
The film begins – and is bookended – by a peculiar scene featuring Holiday talking to a tactless and flamboyant radio host (played by Leslie Jordan), who openly adores her yet fails to comprehend his own racism. This scene has a thin veneer of humour brushed across it, which feels at odds with a very graphic opening credit image that preceded, and when learning that Jordan’s character is entirely fictitious, an unfortunate uncertainty subsequently plagues the rest of Daniels’ storytelling.
The film follows Holiday throughout her final years as she tours America in between recording sessions, while being pursued by the federal police. Unable to arrest her for performing the song in public, the Feds target her substance abuse and have one of their officers hiding amongst her entourage. Their tactics are corrupt, illegal, persistent, and above all else, disgusting. Furthermore, the film portrays Holiday’s addiction to heroin with disturbing detail; as depicted here, her ability to perform was dependent on injecting poison into her veins. And if the story wasn’t grim enough, the film also depicts the domestic abuse inflicted upon her with an unflinching lens. Suffice to say that The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a confronting and numbing experience.
Andra Day stars as Holiday in her Golden Globe-winning screen debut – and she is exceptional. While she may bear little resemblance to Holiday herself, she adopts the characteristics and embodies the persona with perfection, offering a courageous and unpredictable turn as the legendary queen of jazz. Her supporting cast includes Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Tyler James Williams. They are a strong group of players, with each bringing varying levels of gravitas to the unfolding drama. Hedlund is a standout as the corrupt narcotics agent Harry J Anslinger, who steeps to desperate and wicked measures to put Holiday behind bars, and while the nature of his character’s racism might immediately polarise his performance, he plays his part with disturbing authenticity.
To be honest with you, I find this to be a difficult film to review. On one hand, it is an actor’s film with Day serving a tour de force performance worthy of accolades; on the other hand, it is clunky in its delivery, often feeling as though there are multiple stories competing for screen time. It ebbs and flows too, switching tact from one moment to the next. From those themes of domestic abuse and drug addiction, to promiscuity and police corruption, all of which – while correlated – detract from the core theme of racism. Had Daniels focused on his core message without trying to illustrate the inherent flow-on effects, he would have had an outstanding film on his hands.
There is no doubt whatsoever about the abhorrent history that haunts western society, nor is there any question about the importance of the Civil Rights movement and Billie Holiday’s role within it. But there is doubt, at least in my mind, as to whether or not we are being given an honest account of Holiday’s story here. By bookending the film with fiction in those aforementioned scenes with the radio host, the difference between her true story and the filmmaker’s narrative is all too apparent. A question that I wish I didn’t have to ask: has Holiday’s story been misrepresented for a greater social message? Whatever the answer is, Billie Holiday was a remarkable talent and a powerful voice for human rights, and the beauty of her music resonates to this day. “Strange Fruit” remains an incredible piece of storytelling and is unrivalled in its ability to condemn and inform with such heart-wrenching beauty.
‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ opens in Australian cinemas on April 22nd. The film was released on Hulu in the US on February 26th.