The United States vs. Billie Holiday

There hasn’t been many a singer who has left a mark on the music world like Billie Holiday. That voice. That delivery/phrasing. Those songs. All distinctive and amazing. So much so that even now, over 60 years since her death, she still influences many a singer in jazz and pop music. Tragically, due to her drinking, drug use and all that she had been through in her life, she died young – at the age of 44. Really makes you wonder how much more music she could have blessed us with if she had gotten her addictions under control.

Because she is such a well known and beloved singer, much is known about her life. How it was cut short by cirrhosis and heart disease. Despite her talent and how people loved her music she died pretty much penniless. What I did not know until this film was that it was mostly due to the constant harassment she suffered at the hands of the FBI pretty much continuously from the release of her song “Strange Fruit” in 1939 until her death in 1959. She was even arrested and put under police guard on her deathbed. Systematic racism has long, long been a part of American society.

Watching the film it kinda reminded me of Judy starring Renee Zellweger in that while the film was so-so the performance by the leading actress was worthy of an Oscar. Same can be said with this film. Despite the inherent drama in Billie Holiday’s story it did not translate here. Was rather flat in tone. Something we could never accuse Billie of.

First time actress (she is known as a singer) Andra Day is truly a revelation here. She went to great lengths to bring Lady Day to the big screen faithfully. Day lost over 30 pounds for the role and even started drinking and smoking so her voice would be more like Miss Holiday’s. Amazing performance for a first time actress. She completely overshadows the rest of the cast along with the story. Not a surprise that the performance earned her a Golden Globe Award along with several nominations like Oscars and SAG.

Billie Holiday (Andra Day) grew up in Baltimore and then moved to New York City when she was older in order to start her singing career. She began performing at jazz clubs in Harlem and soon her star began to rise due to her fantastic voice and unique phrasing. Part of her rise to fame was due to her releasing the song “Strange Fruit”. It was a song which graphically described a lynching and was seen as inspirational by the black community.

While the black community loved it the American government did not. They saw it as a rallying cry for the black population and did not want that. So with the recording and release of “Strange Fruit” in 1939, Billie began to be the subject of a corrupt FBI investigation. Led by racist Agent Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund – Mudbound, On the Road), who believed drugs and blacks were a problem, they were unrelenting and unscrupulous. Aslinger even placed black agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight, The Predator) undercover within Billie’s inner circle. They even planted drugs on her in order to arrest her. Billie had to spend one year in prison as a result.

As much as she tried to stay clean, she couldn’t. Soon after she left prison, Billie’s drinking and drugs started up again. It took a toll on everything – her career, voice and relationships. Between the harassment by the FBI which hampered her career, her drinking and drug use along with her abusive relationships with men, it led to an early end for Billie.

The big problem with the film can be attributed to the direction by Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler). His choices here perplex me. The film ends up having a sloppy or messy feeling as a result. Does not feel like it has a flow, if you know what it means. Just a bunch of scenes stuck together. Rather choppy. Going off in several different directions without having a focus. As a result you do not care about the injustice here as much as you should.

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