It is already the second film about the life of soul diva Billie Holiday and the second that fails to do this exciting artist justice in its entirety. For what reason THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY Lee Daniels’ handwriting is a problem and why leading actress Andra Day still has a brilliant career ahead of her, we’ll reveal that in our review.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (USA 2021)
In the first half of the 20th century, singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) is a big star. A star whose fame, which bridges the enormous boundaries between white and black audiences, is his undoing: Because of Holiday’s popularity, the US authorities are closely examining her work. When her song “Strange Fruit” becomes an anthem for the rising civil rights movement, the Federal Department of Narcotics takes her into custody in an undercover operation led by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) and her lover, federal agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). , targeted. Within a very short time she is brought to court and imprisoned for drug possession and drug use. But even though she continues to struggle with addiction problems, perhaps even worse than ever, Billie Holiday doesn’t let it get her down…
It’s been almost 50 years since the Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings The Blues” was one of the big losers at the Oscars: The drama by director Sidney J. Furie, in which Diana Ross starred, had five nominations -made his acting debut, ultimately didn’t win a single one of the coveted trophies. However, only a few people were particularly surprised by this at the time, as contemporary critics already expressed great disillusionment with where the filmmakers had set their priorities: Billie Holiday’s life was reduced to a melodramatic series of clichés about drug-addicted stars. The essence of her artistic genius and her (not just pop) cultural significance are largely lost in the film. If “Lady Sings The Blues” were to be released in cinemas today, the press response would probably not only be mixed, but almost unanimously negative. Without getting too speculative at this point, we simply can’t imagine that a biopic that is structured in a formulaic way, and on top of that underestimates the relevance of an African-American singer to the civil rights movement, would be warmly received. It was therefore clear from the start that “Precious” director Lee Daniels would stage his Billie Holiday biopic differently in 2021.
Billie Holiday (Andra Day) and her Jimmy (Trevante Rhedes): Is it true love?
He and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks (“Girl 6”) pay more attention to the popularity (and controversy) of her bitter, melancholic and lyrical 1939 protest song “Strange Fruit,” which chronicles lynchings. They very pointedly demonstrate the complex, contemporary reception of the song: in front of a black audience it gives goosebumps, a mixture of trepidation and the liberating feeling that someone is finally addressing this topic. At the same time, the song’s imagery goes beyond the heads of many white people: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” includes scenes in which ecstatic white people want “Strange Fruit”, just as fans at concerts demand their favorite chart-topper. At the same time, the meaning of “Strange Fruit” does not go unnoticed by the US authorities, who are planning to take the singer out of circulation. So there is a covert spying on Billie Holiday. What, in summary, sounds like a “Judas and the Black Messiah” of blues music is ultimately a similarly big, albeit different, disappointment as the Holiday biopic from the 1970s. Because Lee Daniels does not operate here in the devastating, unvarnished manner as in “Precious”, but with a tonality like in his shameful mistake “The Butler”. The topic of racism is more obviously developed than in “Lady Sings The Blues”, but it is nevertheless addressed just as flatly as it is often addressed (“Greetings from The Butler”).
“Lee Daniels operates here not in the devastating, raw manner of ‘Precious’, but with a tone like his shameful misstep ‘The Butler’.”
The inhumane treatment of the black US population is the thematic theme of the film, which uses both the opening and closing text panels to focus on racially motivated lynchings and the shockingly slow legal action against them. Furthermore, in the course of the film, Holiday’s work is mainly reduced to “Strange Fruit” (which does justice to the political claim more than the focus of “Lady Sings The Blues”, but on the other hand, Holiday’s overall effect is unfairly shortened), and then there’s that already mentioned authorities-want-to-keep-an-opinionated-black-personality-down plot. But even if this complex of themes runs through the narrative: Daniels and Parks do not do it justice. The core message can be shortened to a dull “racism really wasn’t nice” – there is no tangibility, discussion and painful demonstration of what happened during Holiday’s lifetime.
Trevante Rhodes plays federal agent Jimmy Fletcher, who is assigned to Billie Holiday and later begins an affair with her.
The federal agent Fletcher, portrayed passably by Trevante Rhodes, is sketched too shallowly to even begin to approach the complex, interconnected problem of “blacks allowing themselves to be exploited by whites against blacks,” as it is developed in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” To make matters worse, the film historically inaccurately romanticizes the dynamic between him and Holiday and makes it more intimate for the sake of quick pathos. Biopics are of course not documentaries – artistic freedom is permitted. But in this case, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” simplifies complex, fatal social ills into an eroticized “forbidden lovers” subplot complete with a “Billie Holiday liked being treated rough in bed” note that Holiday’s real, long one List of toxic relationships questionably summarized. In general, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” fails to develop the supporting characters in a believable way: They are all written in a very one-sided way and often speak in simple mnemonic sentences, which ultimately weakens our bond with the title character – because how are we supposed to have a feeling for her and develop how they relate to those around them when everyone around them is so insignificant? Lead actress Andra Day fights – in her debut, mind you! – combats these script problems as best she can: she literally disappears into her role and not only imitates Holiday’s smooth, smoky voice (for which the Oscar nominee consumed a lot of tobacco and alcohol – which she strongly advises against!), but understands it it is also to adopt Holiday’s gesture for one’s own. Nevertheless, this is not a pure imitation performance: regardless of whether it is a moment in which Holiday is snarky, vulnerable, proud or scared – Day lets us participate in the intense emotional life of the music legend, all rough edges included.
“In general, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” fails to develop the supporting characters in a believable way: They are all written in a very one-sided way and often speak in simple mnemonic sentences, which ultimately weakens our bond with the title character.”
It certainly helps that the make-up and hairstyling place the cast very convincingly in the setting, the sets appear authentic, and Lee and his proven cameraman Andrew Dunn (“Bridget Jones’ Baby”) capture the action in a jazz club-worthy, elegant yet constricting, shaded aesthetic. On a visual level, the film does justice to both the historical aspect and the perceived truth of Holiday’s experiences that the film aims to portray.
Conclusion: A good performance in a well-intentioned but clumsily implemented biopic that doesn’t do justice to its themes: Andra Day has great prospects for a screen career after “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”. The film, on the other hand, cannot sufficiently approach the legendary singer Billie Holiday.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is available on DVD and Blu-ray starting May 14th and on VOD now.