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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a film that needed to do right by its subject. She was fearless and truly unique, a trailblazer in artistic integrity and taking a stand in the face of prejudice and racism. Which is why it makes it an even harder pill to swallow when the film doesn’t try to approach its ideas with the same level of boldness and commitment as Billie Holiday would have, emphasizing her vices rather than truly exploring who she was and giving us better insight into aspects of her we never knew about. The film follows the US government’s effort in silencing Billie Holiday’s voice by villainizing her as an immoral drug addict with the hopes of her protest song ‘Strange Fruit’ disappearing along with the smear campaign's intended purpose of ruining her career.

MLK/FBI was a great documentary in uncovering the smear campaign and blatant efforts in trying to discredit and remove Martin Luther King as a civil rights leader by the FBI, branding him as the most dangerous man in America. Holiday was met with the same sort of retort from the US government. Strange Fruit was a vital part in the civil rights movement, it drew attention to the lynchings that were happening in the south, and to this day, is still timely and important. There is ample opportunity for the film to inform us of the song’s legacy as well as the significance of Holiday as an artist and most importantly, as a person. Effective biopics have a fine line to balance on in regards to how they portray their subjects. You want to be able to inform the viewer of things they never knew about them as well as giving us a human portrait of mythical figures who had their own demons to fight as well as the obstacles they overcame or failed to do so. Billie Holiday is a goldmine of such potential moments as she was an individual with a troubled private life, fighting demons of abuse and addiction. But through the dark storm that brewed around her, her music was important to her, a glimmer of hope. And this is where The United States vs. Billie Holiday finds itself constantly struggling with. It appears to opt for the addiction and abuse in her life as the only point worth focusing on, very rarely going into other aspects that made her tick and made her a uniquely powerful and compelling voice in music. It paints her as nothing more than just an abused and abusive addict with very little else worth seeing in her.

It’s essentially 130+ minutes of misery porn, with most scenes having her abused by those around her and being hooked on heroin. These are obviously important bookmarks to her unfortunately tragic legacy, but we need some sort of glimmer in the dark, we need to see that there was much more to her as a complex person as opposed to only seeing worn out tropes of self-destruction. The film often finds itself unsure of what story it wants to go for as well. Is this a movie purely driven by the censorship and smear campaigns the government took against her? Is it a movie about the racially bias war on drugs? Is this a film only about her drug addiction or is it a biopic of her life story? Is this about Strange Fruit? It all feels so muddy in terms of what it wants to say about her and the climate surrounding her, which is a crying shame because an artist of her legacy deserves a clearer and much better understanding of what she means to not only music and her fans, but the Civil Rights Movement as well. They seem to abandon and move on from the initial premise of Strange Fruit's controversy shaping the film, leaving it in the rear view when it was clearly something they wanted to build the story around.

I want to learn more about her as a musician and as a person, and even though films about drug addiction can give insight into the reality of its character’s inner demons and who they really are, I feel like we learn absolutely nothing about her from these scenes of the self-destruction and abuse that Holiday finds herself constantly experiencing. We barely see any kind of interactions worth noting with those around her, most notably her band, with them feeling like mere props in scenes as opposed to being fully formed complex individuals who were vital in her life story. The film also misses a chance to let us see more positive aspects to her, opting to only show her taking abuse and abusing herself, with the film eventually implying the idea that a love interest is the only real solution that can pull her out of the wallowing pit of despair. It completely undermines her journey and the actual struggles she constantly found herself fighting to overcome.

Director Lee Daniels also doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do in terms of style and tone as well. Bizarre aesthetic choices in the edit and shooting style come and go, everything from unprompted archival footage to the scrolling text informing us of where we are. These moments are jarring and don’t fit because they are never really warranted or established. Films like JFK for instance, have multiple shooting styles and editing techniques littered throughout but these moments always feel warranted and motivated because it has been established as a point of reference early on in the film. With The United States vs. Billie Holiday, we get these random changes that come out of nowhere, with these moments feeling like random creative ideas that somehow forgot to be removed from the notes column in the edit. As much as the film opts for the misery side of the spectrum, it also undergoes strange tonal shifts and moments from its cast, reaching for the bottom of the barrel in trying to pull out humourous anecdotes that may or may not have happened between Holiday and her band. These moments wouldn’t feel so forced if the film had a lighter, more balanced tone, instead it just feels out of place and completely unwelcome by those delivering it.

And that brings me to the performances in the film. First off, Andra Day is outstanding, especially considering how much of her heart, soul and body she sacrificed and poured into the role. She lives in the skin of Holiday, doing everything she can to be as authentic and as believable as possible. The live performances in particular are the standout for me, evoking the very essence of Billie Holiday as a performer through the unique raspiness of her voice as well as her unearthly presence on stage. Unfortunately, she can’t seem to save the script from the glaring problems it has from characterizations to general plot beats. It makes it even more disheartening for the potential legacy of her performance when the rest of the film can’t come close to matching the quality she brings to the table. You can only do so much with a not-so-convincing script, and the fact that she managed to mine as much as she did and churn out a performance of that magnitude speaks volumes about her commitment and talent as an artist. But even then, the script only really offers Day scenes of being abused, self-destruction and drug addiction - never really allowing her to play, explore and interpret the subtleties and complexities of Billie Holiday as a real person. As mentioned before, the rest of the cast cannot match Day in terms of believability and even commitment, with each one of them feeling as if they are half-assing it due to little attention being given to them as characters. The script doesn’t allow them to really do much other than being one-dimensional characters with barely any kind of meat for us to chew on. It’s Andra Day’s world and they all just live in it. Pair these sub-par performances with Lee Daniels’ sloppy direction in aesthetic and tone, the film comes off as a bad made for TV movie you’d find on Lifetime. It all feels so cheap and unconvincing even with the level of Day’s performance doing its very best to raise the production value.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a train wreck of a biopic. As good as Andra Day is as Billie Holiday, it’s not enough to save a script that is a by-the-numbers biopic that can’t seem to figure out what story it wants to tell and how it wants to portray Billie Holiday. A good film starts with a good script, and with that, The United States vs. Billie Holiday was doomed from the very beginning. It might as well have been written by a bot. It’s uninteresting, unimaginative and entirely forgettable.

Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), Sky Go, Now TV (UK)

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