Cinema Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, January 26th, 2023  

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Studio: Hulu
Directed by Lee Daniels

Feb 25, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Set in the late years of the legendary singer Billie Holiday’s all-too-short life, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is director Lee Daniels’ attempt to give a comprehensive overview of Holiday’s life and career, including her battles with addiction and her fight against the United States government.

The biopic opens with Holiday (portrayed by Andra Day) talking about her life in an interview in 1957, two years before her death. The film quickly travels to 10 years prior when Holiday was performing sold-out shows every night at Cafe Society in New York City. From there, The United States vs. Billie Holiday becomes a look at almost every aspect of Holiday’s life from 1947 to 1957. This includes events such as her one-year prison sentence for narcotics possession, her touring around the country, her ongoing battle with drug addiction, and her most famous and long-lasting relationships.

The narcotics possession ties back to the release of her song “Strange Fruit” in 1937 – a protest anthem about the continued lynching of Black Americans in the American South. “Strange Fruit” gained the singer more traction and caught the attention of the United States government. Aware that the government couldn’t arrest Holiday for a song, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) taps agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to go undercover and befriend Holiday, with the FBN waiting to arrest Holiday for heroin use.

As The United States vs. Billie Holiday makes abundantly clear, Billie Holiday’s life was anything but conventional. The singer had to balance her famous career, her opioid addiction, and her fight with the Government at the same time, for much of her life. With so much to draw from, it’s surprising that the film suffers from a lack of direction and an unclear voice. These two factors often make The United States vs. Billie Holiday a tiring and frustrating watch that rarely feels interesting enough to warrant attention.

If there’s anything to take away from The United States vs. Billie Holiday, it’s that Daniels’ film is too broad. While the film’s title signals that the film is mostly going to explore the long-lasting battle between Holiday and the government, Daniels instead packs every aspect of Holiday’s career and life into a 130-minute long film. It moves from event to event without giving enough time to let each event resonate and stick with viewers. This is a shame, as a thoughtful and nuanced look at the singer’s life whose influence can still be felt to this day, is overdue, since the last biopic, Lady Sings the Blues, was in 1972.

By far, the most striking part of The United States vs. Billie Holiday is the powerhouse performance from Day. In her first leading role, the famed singer and performer absolutely shines in the titular role, sinking into her subject perfectly with a radiating presence every time she’s on screen. When the film doesn’t work, which is more often than not, Day’s presence is enough to make it feel somewhat worthwhile, which is a true testament to her skills and star-power. It’s too bad that she’s in a film that never reaches the same heights she does.

Author rating: 4/10

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