Billie Holiday spent much of her career being adored by fans. In the 1940's, the government targeted Holiday in a growing effort to racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial ballad, "Strange Fruit."
Even though I love listening to jazz, I've never been to a concert or a club specific to this type of music. Following this train of thought, I didn't know anything about Billie Holiday's real-life story and her tremendous impact not only in the respective musical genre but also in the fight against the government concerning the evil, shameful act of lynching - which shockingly still occurs today in some countries. Strange Fruit, a poem written by Abel Meeropol, became incredibly controversial due to its brutal lyrics describing the said act, comparing the victim to the fruit of trees. The adapted song has been referenced as the beginning of the civil rights movement, and Andra Day's performance is the standout of a quite disappointing film.
I just watched The Mauritanian - a movie "based on true events" - earlier this week, and I wrote in its review that I'm almost always captivated by the main story in this type of film, even if the rest doesn't quite hold up. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a biographical movie inspired by the singer's life, but besides Day's powerful display and memorable music, I struggle to find any other positively relevant aspects. Daniel T. Dorrance's fabulous production design is hard to ignore, as is Kris Bowers' attention-grabbing score. However, these two rarely compensate for the jumbled editing (Jay Rabinowitz), untidy screenplay (Suzan-Lori Parks), and even Lee Daniels' erratic direction.
From the awkward, swift transitions to black-and-white and back to color to the lack of connection between cuts and even storylines, it's incredibly hard to feel captivated by such a visually confusing film. Suzan-Lori Parks' script enters a monotonous, repetitive cycle of depicting Billie Holiday heavily smoking and taking drugs, followed by singing a full song and having sex with a random man, all while trying countless times to stop her bad habits. On one hand, Billie Holiday is a strong, proud Black woman who's trying to fight for what's right through her beautiful singing voice and astonishing tenacity. On the other hand, the viewers have to endure numerous sequences of despicable behavior from someone who doesn't look like a good influence at all.
I understand that a protagonist doesn't have to be perfect, much on the contrary. Nevertheless, the narrative structure is so incoherent and raises so many moral questions regarding the true essence of the main character that I couldn't help but feel disengaged from her story. The only interesting moments are the musical performances which might be the only storytelling detail that works as a connecting point to what comes next or as a reference to what happened just before. Every other scene is seemingly detached from the next one, and Lee Daniels struggles to find the right path. The only storytelling component well-developed from beginning to end is the successful build-up to the performance of Strange Fruit.
In the end, Andra Day is the savior of what could have been a massive disaster. Her interpretation is one of the most impressive debut performances I've seen in the last few years. Ignoring her indisputably fantastic singing voice, Day shows a remarkable emotional range and a physical commitment to the role that not many actresses are capable of. She outshines every single element in the movie, including the remaining cast. Day is the only reason why I kept getting "dragged" to the screen. Sadly, one person isn't enough to overcome dozens of significant issues.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday could have been an inspirational, impactful story about Billie Holiday's influence not only in jazz music but mainly in the fight for equal civil rights. Instead, Lee Daniels' inconsistent direction and Suzan-Lori Parks' extremely messy screenplay are just two of many issues that transform this film into an absolute letdown. From the awful editing that detaches almost every storyline from each other to the questionable storytelling decisions regarding the repetitive, tiresome narrative structure, it becomes surprisingly difficult to fully support the protagonist's behavior. Neat production design and engaging score, but it's Andra Day's phenomenal debut performance that saves a potential trainwreck. Her music and acting display are the two key elements that keep the movie above water. I can't properly recommend it unless there's a personal interest in the main character's life.
Lee Daniels Entertainment, Roth-Kirschenbaum Films by Lee Daniels, Suzan-Lori Parks, Johann Hari.
Stars: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund.
Genres: Biography, Drama, Music
Keywords: war on drugs new orleans, louisiana jazz singer or musician ban from profession biography surveillance heroin addiction 1940s 1950s fbi agent
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