This review will be different…
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is powerful and triggering. Lee Daniels takes the story of a legend and composes a visual narrative that mentions and, on occasion, sheds light on that which the opening and closing texts would have you believe is the focus of the film. Lynching… an abysmal act that, to my surprise, has yet to be outlawed in our “great” nation due to semantics, and which inspired the “song of the century” “Strange Fruit”. Daniels chooses instead to focus on heroin, on how the FBI used it to strike fear in the poet and singer, and on how Billie Holiday struggled daily because of it. Warning: if gratuitous drug use is triggering for you choose, instead, to skip this one.
Legendary jazz musician Billie Holiday is adored by fans around the world but despised by the FBI because of her incredible voice, outspokenness AND, most importantly, because of her poetic ability to compose words into melody. Though love songs were her bread and butter, “Strange Fruit” was the jam of the people and of a movement. It was a poetic, horrifying description of a lynching. Because of this song the government pushed to subdue her by any means necessary. [Enter “War on drugs” stage right]
This story is inarguably worth telling but I can’t help but feel that the focus is off. “Lady Day”’s persecution was not due to her addiction, though the FBI would have you believe it was, it was due to the power of her voice, her reach, and her bravery. Perhaps I presume too much when I say that, at this point in time, the general educated public is aware that the “war on drugs” was really a “war on people of color” so the film feels like a wasted opportunity to make this film about the governments purposeful ignorance of the torture and murder of black people all across the nation, particularly in the south.
I hope you’ll excuse my language when I say the following. The expression goes: “when you assume you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. I certainly feel like an ass for assuming there were laws in place that made lynching a federal offense. This film made me aware of this 120 year long battle. Why then does Daniels choose to focus on Holiday’s dependence on narcotics? It’s almost as if this is what he would want us to believe is her defining characteristic but it wasn’t. It was a crux for her, of course, as well as that which the FBI was able to abuse to pin her down and keep her from speaking truth but it wasn’t all of her or even most of her.
Reminder: I said this would be a different review.
The film has good cinematography and visuals, decent editing, and strong performances. However, the visuals and editing lack consistency making it hard to stay engaged, thereby, keeping the audience at arms length, always aware of the screen, the actors and the intention of the director, for better or worse. The best part of the film is the music but even that is tainted by Daniels’ direction.
Unfortunately I don’t see this film getting a whole lot of love come Oscars night outside of the original song by Andra Day titled “Tigress & Tweed” which has already received a Golden Globe nomination and is one of the front runners, in my opinion. Even this, strongest of elements, was criminally underused in the final cut.
In truth, I am very far from the ideal audience for this film because of my personal sensitivities but I AM the perfect audience for the story of Billie Holiday. The story of her persecution, of her struggles, of her experience as a child forced to grow up too soon… I am the ideal audience for a story about the American government’s lack of care for the lives of people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ persons, etc. I wish that was the story of The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Perhaps they came up with the title first, knew it was awesome, and made the script fit into its mold.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday will be available to stream on Hulu starting February, 26th.