by Philip Price
Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes & Garrett Hedlund
Runtime: 2 hours & 10 minutes
The first hour of Lee Daniels’ oddly structured “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is so plagued by the fits and starts of its three different narrative strands and the resulting meandering nature of as much that, despite the eponymous character being of indisputable interest, it's almost immediately evident this particular piece about her life lacks the focus to make any real sense to the casual viewer and won't be able to generate any lasting impact on even the most ardent of Holiday admirers. It’s not until nearly an hour and 15 minutes in (or with some 45 minutes remaining) that the film based on Suzan Lori-Parks’ screenplay from the novel by Johann Hari somewhat finds its footing by taking the character of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) who, up until this point has been something of an extraneous detail in Holiday's life, and inserts him into the main arc of Andra Day's version of Holiday; placing their two very different trajectories in life on the same track and forcing those paths to merge into one. The funny thing is, this breakthrough doesn't occur because Fletcher and Holiday have this undeniable chemistry or even because their mostly deranged romance is so captivating, but more it has to do with the fact this feels like the first time the film is actually onto something regarding who Holiday might have actually been as a human being. Sure, this is due in part to the fact that in the sprouting of this romantic relationship the viewer is also given further context surrounding Holiday's childhood and formative experiences (again, not until over an hour into the film), but if anything has been established in Daniels' film thus far it's that Holiday was a woman who liked to live in extremes no matter what she was doing. There's that famous quote of her responding to the question of why so many jazz greats seem to die so early to which she replied, "...we try to live one hundred days in one day." This is all to say that in her relationship with Fletcher - at least in the film - Holiday finds something she doesn't understand and therefore doesn't feel in control of her emotions due to the fact there's only a certain type of love she's become accustomed to. Both ironically and tragically is the fact the kind of love that made Holiday feel safe was also the kind that kept her perpetually unhappy and paranoid. What might have been a study in a life that only felt purposeful when what caused her pleasure caused her just as much pain, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is ultimately a mess of a missed opportunity whose execution can't match its subject's ambition.
The main objective of Daniels' film is to deal with a bill to ban lynching that did not pass in 1937 and how it relates to Holiday's song "Strange Fruit" and its horrifying description of a lynching in lyrical form. Framed by an interview with a farcical Reginald Lord Devine as played by Leslie Jordan in New York City on May 3, of 1957 - just over two years before Holiday's death in July of 1959 - Devine's first question, "What is it like to be a colored woman?" sets the stage for both the time period's obliviousness to their own racism and thus making it evident how steep the hill Holiday was climbing in fact remained. Day summons a spot-on smoky voice to mimic that of Holiday's as she responds to Devine's question with another, asking if he would ask Doris Day that question. Of course, Devine simply dismisses the retort with a simple, "Well Doris Day isn't black, silly!" It's not that Holiday desired to get into trouble you see, but more that her mentality wouldn't allow her to live in peace due simply to the norm of how black people were treated during the time period in which she was born and forced to exist. Daniels largely exhibits Holiday's tendencies to "be difficult" through much of the first hour of his film for, as alluded to, many a people who knew "Lady Day" - as she was frequently referred - would describe the singer as only being happy when she was unhappy. And in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” the titular singer certainly comes off as something of a masochist by nature, but at the same time it's not hard to see that much of the strife she experienced and the depression she was clearly dealing with came from not only being a victim of the circumstances she brought upon herself, but by those circumstances out of her control that she was not prepared to accept. Either way, Holiday's life was as much a tragedy as it was a success given it was what was in her control that gives her main opposition in Daniels' film - Garrett Hedlund's Harry Anslinger AKA the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics - the leeway to make an example out of her. Holiday was a drug addict and would take whatever was around in order to obtain a high, one band member recalling, "She really dug being high. She was using heroin and cocaine at the same time. She could consume more stimulus than any ten men and still perform." Due to this frequent substance abuse, Anslinger was bound and determined to stop what he called a "contamination to our great American civilization," by not only making an example out of Holiday, but by stopping her from singing "Strange Fruit" so as to not allow her "devil's music" to serve as this starting guide for what would become the civil rights movement.
Lady Day's back and forth with the feds is largely where the film derives its hook and is key to understanding her personality and what she embodied not only as a singer, but as an activist. By all accounts, Holiday was fighting for equality before Martin Luther King Jr. through the songs she chose to sing, exposing discrimination and putting it on stage. "Strange Fruit" as described by journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl was Holiday's "primal howl against the bloody history of white America. Her refusal to stop singing it would give vindication to powerful men already circling the decadent world of jazz in search of a high-profile target to burnish their reputation." This very clearly gives us the plot of Daniels' film which more or less unfolds as one would expect even if the director's visual cues and influences are all over the place. Daniels throws all of these different styles at the wall as he captures Holiday performing always with a certain regality to her getting high and dealing with the countless men (and women) that move in and out of her life in what are not less flashy, but yet somehow still flat pieces of filmmaking. This all accentuating the point that the plot dealing in Anslinger setting Fletcher, who was an undercover federal agent, on Holiday's trail doesn't so much end up conveying what the story's really about and that's this idea Holiday was being silenced not for her lifestyle, but for quietly bringing about a cultural revolution that terrified people like Anslinger. It would be through this defiance and need to sing "Strange Fruit" that Daniels might have further tapped into how the time in which she was born and her abusive childhood not to mention how she came from nothing and made herself into a nationally-revered legend gave way to a woman uncomfortable with accepting her fate or a woman able to enjoy the pleasures of life in a sober state, but the film instead muddies the water with too many competing elements for the film's thesis to ever be clear.
The story jumps back a decade prior from the framing device of that opening interview to 1947 at a night club where much of the narrative strands that will come to define Lori-Parks' screenplay first come into motion including Jimmy Fletcher, Holiday's manager Joe Glaser (Dusan Dukic), as well as her husband at the time James Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey). While periodically returning to Devine's interview for seemingly no other reason than to introduce different facets of Holiday's life including the likes of Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) the film seems to largely forget this device about halfway through. Not to fear though, as Daniels still can't get out of the way of his story as explaining the particulars of Holiday's life come to occupy more of the running time that unpacking why Holiday became who she did. The marriage to Monroe and relationship with Glaser as her manager who it’s said wanted her busted in order to "save her", but that Holiday always perceived to be a set-up would end in 1947 shortly after Holiday sung "Strange Fruit' at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia and was busted with heroin leading to the court case referenced in the title that would see Holiday be sentenced to prison for a year and a day. Hence, "Lady Day". Holiday would be married to Joe Guy (Melvin Gregg) from 1951 through to 1957 who is largely depicted here as nothing more than her supplier and a friend she would get high with on a regular basis. It is during this time according to the film that Holiday would have varying flings with individuals like John Levy (Tone Bell) who becomes a lover after letting Holiday sing in his club despite her not having her cabaret card after being released from prison. The two had a love/hate relationship that was plagued by violence, but it's also been reported that Levy served as an informant from as early as 1934 and when it came to Holiday, wanted her caught because he ultimately couldn't control her. Louis McKay (the great Rob Morgan) would be Holiday's last husband in the final two years of her life, but the man was a pathological liar who would hypnotize Holiday into solely depending on him as he fed into her masochistic nature by beating her, which seems to have gratified them both, and then immediately engaging in sex. The way in which each of these men became enamored with Holiday is chronicled with almost as much fervor as the FBI's which of course introduces Fletcher into her life, but whose love story has been lost due to the different nature of it altogether.
Jimmy Fletcher's status as one of the first black federal agents cues up another difficult question for Daniels and Lori-Parks to wrestle with but is buried by everything else going on in the film and thus becomes nothing more than a throwaway conversation between Rhodes' Fletcher and a fellow black federal agent as played by Evan Ross which is, admittedly, in a nice little nod to “Lady Sings the Blues.” The film is forced to confront this conflict of interests though as it needs to garner just as much sympathy for Fletcher as it does Holiday. Fletcher's plight is traced back to his father who told him drugs would be the death of their people which he took to heart given he can see the reality of this coming to fruition under Anslinger's hysterical war on drugs. It also doesn't hurt that the film doesn't hold onto the tension of Holiday not knowing Fletcher's ulterior motives longer than a half hour as it is the unadulterated relationship the two come to share in the second half of the film that gives way to that aforementioned moment of clarity among what is a whirlwind of sex, style, and song that Daniels never is able to maintain authorship over. Ironically enough, it is also at this point in the film that Daniels puts on his flashiest of director's hats as he takes the viewer through Holiday’s traumatic childhood and adolescence explaining what instigated her ugly opioid habit as well as inspiring the song that would define her legacy. Unfortunately, this brief honeymoon in Holiday’s life - away from the abusive relationships and drug-fueled performances - lasts as briefly in the context of the film as it likely felt for Holiday in real life. It should also be noted that Day's performance as Holiday is excellent and perfectly calibrated in a way that it is somehow able to shine through past everything the movie is miscalculating around her. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” jumps around so frantically and without any real intent that it’s difficult to get a grasp on what and when in Holiday's life the biggest impacts were both felt and made. More than anything though, Daniels' film feels like a series of vignettes made around critical points in the final decade of our subject's life, each of which with a different artistic flair, that never coalesces into an indelible portrait, but by mimicking the extremes of its namesake is at least able to make a strong case for just how deep the roots of systemic racism go.