Review: Andra Day is Wounded and Ferocious in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 26, 2021

Andra Day and Tyler James Williams in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'
Andra Day and Tyler James Williams in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'  

Director Lee Daniels teams with acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for a biopic of jazz legend Billy Holiday that feels more jazzy and legendary than, perhaps, biographical.

Not that that's a bad thing: The film is credited as being based on the book "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs," a historical analysis by the British writer Johann Hari, who wrote about Holiday as part of his investigation. Hari also write about Federal Bureau of Narcotic Commissioner Henry Anslinger, a morphine addict who - ironically enough - is shown in the film as a personal nemesis to Holiday.

Indeed, the film asks us to entertain the notion that the genesis of the so-called "war on drugs" - something that's been going on for far longer than George H.W. Bush's famous declaration of a war on drugs, from the 1980s, itself an overtly racist enterprise - was primarily driven by a wish, on the part of the United States government, to silence Holiday (Andra Day), who persists in performing her anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit" despite governmental pressure on her and other around her to get her to stop. Holiday is "provoking people - the wrong way," Anslinger's character (Garrett Hedlund) says at one point - hardly a defensible rationale when it comes from a man whose first words in the movie are a string of racist, and racially offensive, rubbish.

The movie is a Gordian knot of fuzzy history (personal as well as political), racial antipathy, overt parallels to contemporary America, and difficult sexual relationships - including one between Holiday and a federal agent called Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). The knottiness and fuzziness both feel determined; the whole film, in fact, feels rooted in a drug trip that Rhodes takes at one point in which he imagines himself traveling through Holiday's life and traumas, witnessing the aftermath of a lynching and Holiday's youthful stint in a brothel. The film as a whole is possessed of a certain strain of narrative distortion that acts to re-focus its arguments in specific and concentrated ways, such that it doesn't matter if Anslinger was personally dogging Holiday's steps, or smoky backrooms of powerful white men really did ring with the words "We need to nail this bitch."

What Lee seems to have in mind above telling Holiday's story (one of pain, addiction, persecution, principle, and defiance) is telling the story of two Americas - one in the past, the other in the present - that are, sad to say, a single entity underneath a veneer of progress. Today's accusations that BLM protestors are "communists" are but an echo of the slurs hurled at Black Americans of decades past who vocally protested how people like themselves were being lynched at the hands of lawless white mobs. Lee and Parks ask us, all but directly, to consider whether turning to drugs might not be a sensible survival strategy in a society where excruciating consequences are doled out, complete with moralistic messaging, on the basis less of crimes committed than the pleasure, on the part of the powerful, of doing the punishing.

Everything in the movie reflects how a shaken, shattered psyche - the victim of a racist society - might view and respond to the world: An often-jittery editing style, a theatrical aesthetic for light and color, a sweeping and yet dreamlike cinematography, a tendency for the narrative to slip between and confuse past and future, a string of betrayals and reconciliations, and a long arc of artistic brilliance that is doubled by an equally long arc of methodical self-destruction. "Of course I'm high," Holiday snaps at one point, after a career-defining concert. "I wanted to put on a great show." Lee trades here in the trope of the addicted artist - by necessity - but he makes it his mission to transcend that trope, and in this he succeeds.

Day, in the role of Holiday, is as wounded and ferocious as the singer's own legend.She more than delivers the music; she inhabits it. Pairing well with her on screen is Rhodes, whose Fletcher begins as a nemesis, becomes a lover, and ends as a witness. Though he serves different roles at different points in the film, his mix of love, sadness, awe, and desire are consistent throughout.

How much of this film is factual? How much is artistic liberty? How much is pure art - art, that is, borne of rage and suffering and tenderness? It doesn't matter once the movie starts. This isn't history. This is, in its essence, her story, that of the one and only Lady Day.

"The United States vs. Billie Holiday" premieres on Hulu Feb. 26.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.