‘The United States vs Billie Holiday’ Leaves Much To Be Desired (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: C+

Billie Holiday’s legacy still looms large over American culture, both popular and otherwise. Hers was a voice of majesty, filled with a raw power and passion that has influenced everything from politics to the arts for decades, and will continue that influence long after we’re forgotten.

Belying that majesty, however, was a life filled with abuse—domestic abuse, sexual abuse, political abuse, drug abuse—which followed her through much of her too short life. She was complex, tragic, beautiful. And her story deserves to be explored, even 60 years after her death.

The life and times of Lady Day have offered no shortage of cinematic explorations over the years, from 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross and last year’s documentary Billie, her story begs to be told. Now, director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) throws his hat into the ring with The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Daniels, working from a script by Suzan-Lori Parks (adapting the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari), delivers something of a mixed bag. The film itself suffers from a mix of unfocused centers and reliance on the conventions of the biopic form. It is, as a whole, fine. But fine is, notably, hardly enough for a subject like Lady Day.

As suggested by the title, the film largely focuses on the FBI attempts to silence Holiday (Andra Day) over her song “Strange Fruit.” Set up by Special Agent Harry Anslinger (Garret Hedlund), Holiday is harassed into stopping performances of her song; when that doesn’t work, they pop her for drugs. The film splits its time between that and Holiday’s attempts to pick up the pieces of her career post-jail. Still under watch from the feds, and still fighting a heroin addiction, Holiday struggles to find self-worth and meaning in a world where lynchings are the norm and skin color impedes opportunities.

In the grand tradition of biopics, Day’s performance is high light of The United States vs Billie Holiday. Day, in her first starring performance, more embodies her subject than almost any actor ever has, absolutely becoming Holiday in the process. Her nomination for Best Actress at the Golden Globes, airing this Sunday, February 28, is well deserved. She even provides vocals for the film’s soundtrack which, while certainly not Holiday herself, comes as close to Lady Day as one could ever hope.

The problems with the film stem mostly from the screenplay, which admittedly casts a wide net. Holiday’s life and story lends itself well to a deeper examination of the racist history of the United States. “Wouldn’t your life be easier if you just behaved,” asks a character late in the film. Yes, it probably would have been. But history isn’t made by the well behaved; Holiday, like all artists, worked from the soul, and hers was a soul tormented by all angles. That makes her uniquely suitable as a stand in for any number of social musings.

However, in casting the net so wide, the film loses its balance. Despite Day’s stunning performance, The United States vs. Billie Holiday can’t ever quite find its footing or know what it wants to be. It meanders, sidetracking itself near constantly and loses much of its potential power in the process. A bit of focus goes a long way, but Daniels and Park can’t ever seem to crack what the focus should be.

Which is a shame because there is a lot of potential here even beyond Day’s standout portrayal. Holiday was complicated and tragic and wonderful, and there’s no doubt that her story is hard to tell. There’s something to be said about the attempt, but ultimately the results fall far short of where they ought to be.

The United States vs Billie Holiday is now available on Hulu.

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