There's a plague looming over Hollywood, and has been for years: the middling, by-the-numbers biopic about important historical figures. While there are exceptions to this ('A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood' and 'Rocketman', for example), many are churned out as if on a sterilised assembly line, waiting to be forgotten about by audiences a few hours after the credits roll (the ease with which these oft-middle budget films fit the M.O. of original streaming service productions doesn't assist with their staying power either). 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' is the newest film to run off that assembly line, but its blandness is perhaps even more unforgivable given the cultural context into which this film was released.
As indicated by the title, the film tracks the final 12 years of the iconic singer Billie Holiday's life (singer Andra Day, in her first major role) and her near-constant entanglement with the United States government. Against their wishes and those of her controlling husband (Erik LaRay Harvey, 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'), Holiday insisted on closing her sets at the Cafe Society with her song 'Strange Fruit', a haunting retelling of a lynching (a crime the government had decided against outlawing). While unable to literally silence her, federal officer Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, 'Triple Frontier') realised he could kill two birds with one stone by targeting Holiday for her increasingly damaging drug habit, using Holiday as a poster child for the impending war on drugs and in damaging her reputation, preventing her from singing 'Strange Fruit'.
'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' really has its work cut out for itself with its subject matter. Juggling the major racial injustices of the 40s and 50s, the war on drugs and the life of one of the greatest jazz singers of the 20th century is a mammoth task, and in trying to do it all it's no surprise that the film has virtually nothing worthwhile to say about any of it. What's worse is the less-than-subtle script that forces its characters to declare in each and every scene what is happening and how they are feeling. All this plays over a bland backdrop with little to nothing interesting going on visually. 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' is director Lee Daniel's first film since 2013's warmly received 'The Butler', but this film calls into question whether or not he's lost his touch. In all brutal honesty, the sole reasons to give this film the time of day are the performances from Day and Trevante Rhodes ('Moonlight') as federal officer Jimmy Fletcher, Holiday's fan turned enemy turned lover. Not only are Day and Rhodes magnetic in their individual performances, but their on-screen chemistry is also one of the film's strongest elements, with their relationship developing in a way that's never forced. Day is every bit as good as her critical and awards success would suggest, but at times it's hard to even justify sticking around for her through all 130 minutes. It's a real shame because Day gives it her all, performing Holiday's discography with such uncanniness you'd be forgiven for thinking she was lip-syncing. Her commitment to the role is admirable.
SWITCH: 'THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY' FINAL TRAILER
2007's excellent 'Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story' successfully lampooned the clichés of the musician biopic 14 years ago, and it is equal parts hilarious, baffling and frustrating that these tropes are still being used so shamelessly in 2021. Instead of showing Holiday's final moments, a lazy title card cuts from her coughing on her death bed to tell audiences "on July 17, 1959, Billie Holiday died. She was 44 years old." The moment plays as unintentionally funny and awkward rather than sombre, and this is a recurring issue throughout the film. It took me writing this review to even remember that the film attempts to structure itself as a flashback recount as Holiday is interviewed about her life and career (think Freddie Mercury walking into Live Aid in 'Bohemian Rhapsody', but way worse): the film itself even forgets about it. 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' feels (and I'm getting tired of saying this about these kinds of movies) less like an exploration of Holiday's life and more like an adaptation of her Wikipedia page.
I would even go as far as to say that the film's title is simply an exercise in virtue signalling, using Holiday - just as the men in her life used her - as a springboard to tell a bigger story that doesn't appear to care about the legitimate suffering she went through. So much screen time is given to Anslinger and Fletcher plotting to take Holiday down that you'd think this was their story and not hers. This lack of interest is evident in the handling of recounting Holiday's prison sentence in 1947, which apart from a conversation with Fletcher, is glossed over during a montage. This happens yet again when Holiday's past as a sex trafficking victim at the hands of her mother is revealed in the midst of a crowded (but admittedly very good) scene that laments violence against black people in general and not that inflicted upon Holiday herself, ending in a commanding performance of 'Strange Fruit'. None of these moments actually take the time to explore how this trauma has affected her, and the implication that this was her motives for her drug use just doesn't cut it.
Andra Day deserves a better opportunity to showcase both her acting and singing talent, and Billie Holiday deserves a biopic far less by-the-numbers than this.
The release of a film like 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' in a time of civil unrest is both an inevitability and a disappointment. As the public are both exhausted and incensed by near-daily racial violence at the hands of authorities, there needs to be a reasonfor 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' to exist other than opportunism. There needs to be a reason for cruelly showing Anslinger refer to Holiday as a "black bitch" behind closed doors (the frequency with which these insults fly feels like a stretch of believability for entertainment's sake). There needs to be a reason for a scene in which Holiday's second husband brutally beats her not cutting after he pushes her into a mirror with such force that it shatters on impact. It is possible to accurately depict racial injustice and violence without being unnecessarily cruel, and 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' finely toes that line.
Critics and audiences alike have been quick to draw comparisons between 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' and 'Judy', in that both centre on the rise and fall of a revered singer of yesteryear (both also just so happen to be incredibly mediocre films miraculously held together by a lead performance neither film deserve). But it also has a lot in common with the Marie Curie biopic 'Radioactive', in that it completely misunderstands how to approach its leading lady. The cultural impact that both Holiday and Curie had in their careers was massive to say the least, and in their approach, both films imply it's impossible to explore these women as both a phenomenon and a human. Exposition does not an insightful film make, and 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' left me feeling like I was looking at a roughly-sketched version of Holiday's complicated existence. There's an irony to the film's tagline; it states "her voice would not be silenced," but this film does nothing to let her speak up either.
As good as its intentions may be, 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' feels so phoned in that it's insulting to the suffering of the real-life people it explores; a robotic exercise in exposition for a story that desperately needs a human touch in order to be told with justice. At its core, Andra Day deserves a better opportunity to showcase both her acting and singing talent, and Billie Holiday deserves a biopic far less by-the-numbers than this.