A script can make or break a movie, and it breaks The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Lee Daniels’ latest look at American history, arriving eight years after his previous film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. For screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks (working off the 2015 nonfiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by English journalist Johann Hari), Billie Holiday’s skills as a talented singer, vibrant performer, and intuitive improviser never come first. All the qualities that made her singular play second fiddle to her many relationships with awful men.
Some of those men were invented for the script, as if the goal of The United States vs. Billie Holiday was to further punish a woman whose life was already intermittently miserable thanks to the dual efforts of racism and misogyny. Andra Day is spellbindingly good as the jazz legend whose anti-racist song “Strange Fruit” made her an enemy of the racist U.S. government, but the film built around her isn’t worthy of her performance. From the narrow presentation of her identity to the uneven ensemble, in addition to the filmmakers’ incorrect belief that trauma can stand in for character development, the movie betrays Day and Holiday at every turn.
Daniels and Parks declare their tragic intent with an opening swell of foreboding strings, and lay out their worship of Holiday’s beauty with their first image of her: resplendent in a couture gown, creamy white flowers in her hair, bold red gloss on her lips, staring directly into the camera. Over the ensuing 130 minutes, though, those two approaches never fully coalesce. Daniels leans too often on the contrast between the poised, proper onstage version of Holiday, captivating audiences with her finery and wit, and the stripped-down, foul-mouthed offstage version, with her heroin spoons and the cocaine-dealing “candyman” she keeps on retainer. There isn’t enough of a middle there, no sustained sense of who Holiday was outside of her clothes, her addiction, and the men who manipulated her. The film is a jumbled mess of misaligned puzzle pieces that never assembles a full representation of its subject.
Holiday’s career spanned nearly three decades, from her breakthrough in the mid-1930s to her death in 1959, but apart from a poorly edited hallucination-cum-flashback sequence, The United States vs. Billie Holiday only focuses only on the last decade or so of her life. After its initial glimpse of Holiday’s stage presence, the film moves to 1957, when a visibly hollowed-out Holiday — her cheeks gaunt as she chain-smokes cigarettes, her voice hoarse and weary — sits for an interview with curdlingly condescending journalist Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan). His questions about why she continued to perform the song “Strange Fruit” despite repeated warnings from the U.S. government, in particular the Bureau of Narcotics and its commissioner Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, handsome but miscast), serve as a framing device and allow the film to shift the narrative to 1947.
Holiday was at the height of her career then, drawing sold-out crowds each night at the Café Society in New York City. Black and white fans alike loved hearing her croon love songs like “All of Me” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” as well as the protest song “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol under the pen name Lewis Allan. During this first performance, Daniels melts together various shots of Day-as-Holiday so she takes up the whole frame. Layers crossfade so a full-length shot shares the frame with a close-up, and that close-up bleeds into a mid-range composition, and that mid-range transitions again to be next to another full-length shot. Billie is everywhere, mirrored over and over again, and her presence is uncontainable.
But her continued performance of “Strange Fruit” begins to draw the wrong kind of attention. The song’s lyrics, about lynching in the American South and the racism in the roots of this country, are unflinching (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”), and Holiday’s performance of it is unsettling. More and more people demand that she sing it. That popularity inspires Anslinger, who is looking for a career victory after the reversal of Prohibition, to make an example out of Holiday, and to use her heroin addiction as leverage. In a smoky room, alongside the other bigoted white men who run the country, Anslinger declares that “Strange Fruit” is “causing a lot of people to think the wrong things.” When a colleague suggests that the Bureau of Narcotics can’t arrest someone for just singing a song, Anslinger takes that personally.
Anslinger is just one of the men Daniels uses to shove his titular character aside, though. Somewhat similar to the approach of Judas and the Black Messiah, The United States vs. Billie Holiday flattens its protagonist by splitting the narrative between her and the people who betrayed her. Her husband Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey) berates and hits her, and her manager Joe Glaser (Dusan Dukic) doesn’t lift a finger to protect her, even though she’s making him so much money. War veteran and FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who’s working for Anslinger, is tasked with finding proof of Holiday’s drug addiction so she can be arrested. A drug dealer, a club owner, a businessman — these men cycle into the narrative, do their part in destroying Holiday, then cycle out.
Not only does this approach limit the audience’s understanding of Holiday, it also detracts from the parts of the movie that work to express who Holiday was, and what she prioritized and loved. Day is a revelation: her confident movement and fluid vocal renditions of these gorgeous songs contrasts sharply with the raspiness of her speaking voice and her transformed physicality while high.
Whether Holiday is gossiping and ribbing with friends Roz (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence), or working with bandmate Lester Young (Tyler James Williams) on the performance of a new song and her decision to incorporate a call-and-response section, or flirting with Southern aristocrat Tallulah Bankhead (a contained Natasha Lyonne), Day is exceptionally natural. She gives the right amount of emotional weight to Holiday’s unapologetic boldness on “Strange Fruit,” and the film’s most haunting scene comes when Daniels positions his camera in front of Day and captures her full performance of the song, zooming in ever so slightly during those few minutes, and giving primacy to her unwavering eye contact.
But Day’s self-assured work is undermined whenever the script requires her to fall into the arms of another terrible man. And the rhythm the film builds is interrupted for increasingly repetitive finger-wagging over what the film suggests are Holiday’s poor romantic choices, rather than her forced acquiescence to a world run by men.
“She’s strong, beautiful, and Black,” one man says to another, describing Holiday. That’s a positive sentiment, but it’s also the film’s primary shortcoming: how often it uses men to speak about Holiday’s importance, aura, and appeal, without giving the same opportunities to the character herself. If the film did a better job contextualizing how Holiday was the first real victim of the U.S. War on Drugs’ racist policies — a decades-long effort that has continued to disproportionately punish and criminalize generations of Black and brown people — perhaps there could be some logic to how consistently the film uses her as a punching bag.
But the script never sutures together Holiday as a performer, a victim of domestic abuse, and a target of the U.S. government, so intertitles about the Emmett Till Antilynching Act and a coda about what happened to Anslinger after Holiday’s death further divide the film’s focus. It would be irresponsible to ignore the realities of misogyny and racism, but so is positioning Holiday purely as a reactive figure. Both she and Day deserved better.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.