The United States Vs Billie Holiday
The song Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday’s paean against lynching – remains one of the most vivid articulations of America’s vicious history of racism. In Lee Daniels’ The United States Vs Billie Holiday, the track’s power is seen as the rosebud to the vocalist’s life. The action of this feature, starring Andra Day as the iconic singer, centres around establishment efforts to censor the tune. First her management and then the government cut it from her performances under the guise of the “war on drugs” rhetoric. The soloist’s heroin use is depicted through close-ups of bubbling spoons and teary, rolling eyes. The director puts a heavy, jaunty score atop every scene so you won’t feel the impact of anything unless he tells you to.
Day, a soul singer who has rarely appeared in movies, captures the husky voice, vulnerability and humour under the superstar exterior of Billie Holiday. But in scene after scene she is asked to gyrate, gesticulate and suffer. Moonlight’s Trevante Rhoades plays the FBI recruit assigned to bust the the titular character, in another example of Hollywood catching onto the ways that power infiltrates and spies on every social movement. Scenes at FBI HQ show fat, suited white men smoking cigars and plotting between glasses of scotch and slurs. That Hollywood is so brazenly depicting surveillance of the past suggests a certain naive complacency. The filmmaker seems to say that this was a then problem, not a now problem. One can’t help but wonder what the inevitable Capitol Hill riot movie will look like.
Daniels, who directs awards friendly dramas that sometimes hit with The Oscars – like Precious – and sometimes get laughed out of the room, like The Paperboy and The Butler, consistently swings right down the middle with treacly, overproduced biopics about incidents in the later half of the 20th century. Boomer material, some might call it. The United States Vs Billie Holiday barely reinvents the wheel, nor does it justify a 120 minute run time. If you are new to this story, then read the book this is based on instead.
The United States Vs Billie Holiday is released on Sky Cinema on 27th February 2021.
Watch the trailer for The United States Vs Billie Holiday here: