Many people know the name and legacy of Billie Holiday, but director Lee Daniels wants to ensure the world has another chance to discover the true story about how the US government targeted the jazz legend in the final years of her life.
In an age when musicians are expected to use their platform to speak out about injustices in the world, The United States vs Billie Holiday reminds us that the iconic singer was punished for doing just that amid the civil rights movement.
Rather than telling the Black legend’s life story in standard biopic style, the film focuses on her life from 1939 until her death in 1959 at the age of 44, examining the relationship she struck up with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) – the Black FBI agent who was sent to arrest her as the bureau pursued her on drug charges.
Indeed, while Holiday’s music has forever been celebrated in the years following her death, Precious director Daniels believed it was time to highlight how the federal government targeted Holiday (Andra Day) for her drug use as a way to stop her from singing her ‘controversial’ anti-lynching ballad, Strange Fruit.
The choice of Rise Up singer Andra Day to play Holiday is the best thing Daniels could have done, with the star absolutely knocking it out of the park in her feature acting debut.
The singer is known for her great voice, but the way she transforms her vocals to take on the depth and emotionality of Holiday’s hits the viewers from the very start of the film.
In fact, Day could win awards for her dedication in becoming Holiday alone. The star truly became a method actor as she started smoking and drinking for the role, take part in sex scenes, revealing her body on-screen, and swearing for her part as the troubled singer.
No small task for a Christian woman who looks after her mind, soul and body while working as a respected musician. The role also required her to lose and gain weight to show different periods in Holiday’s life, but the physical changes the audience sees is nothing compared to what we hear every time the star speak and sings.
Day truly illuminates each scene when she is on screen, channeling the painful experiences Holiday faced into her performance – while also still being able to reveal the charismatic nature the singer radiated throughout her life.
It’s no wonder the Grammy-nominated singer is now a Golden Globe nominee for best actress in a motion picture, as well as for best song.
Interestingly, Daniels deliberately keeps Strange Fruits away from the audience for the first part of the film, teasing the moment Day would sing the track as the authorities constantly stopped the performance from happening.
It was a choice made to highlight the censorship she was facing as the audience is left unable to be moved by the power of the words and her voice until a devastating sequence that revealed the pain of lynching, and the heart-wrenching aftermath it causes on those left behind.
Like the recently released Judas and the Black Messiah, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a sort of historically corrective biopic.
However, more could have been done to examine Rhodes’s character Jimmy Fletcher and the way in which he fell in love with the Black woman he had been sent to destroy.
Viewers get a small sense of his struggle in betraying another Black citizen during some of his interactions with his boss Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) and some work colleagues, but in many ways, it all leaves more questions than answers about the cop.
The aim of the film is to rightfully praise Holiday’s defiance and that much is clear in one of the final scenes which sees her laughing in her hospital bed – managing to somehow still rebel against those trying to tame her.
Viewers leave the film with the reminder of current discussions about lynching and the US government’s inability to pass a law making the deplorable act a federal hate crime.
It’s clear that Daniels’ hope is to inspire a generation to continue the fight started by Holiday and her contemporaries. After the year of racial reckoning and a tense election, the timing of the film’s release couldn’t be more fitting for this cause.