“God Bless the Child” was the first Billie Holiday song I ever heard. It was one of my grandmother’s favorites. She loved the lyrics because it was a lesson about how fake friends and money don’t mix. Reading the words years later, I realized those words had to reflect Holiday’s own life of love, loss, and money troubles—which director Lee Daniels explores in his new film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” It’s a mixed-at-best effort with a strong lead performance, but one that ultimately cannot honor the legendary song (or singer’s life) it takes most of its emotional and spiritual cues from.
Holiday’s famously haunting, sad, emotionally-loaded song “Strange Fruit”—a not-so-subtle metaphor for the horror of watching a lynching, and the trauma behind it—is at the core of the story’s narrative and emotional heart. It serves as the connective tissue between Holiday and the FBI, as the government loathed the song because it called attention to racism in America (which the FBI actively participated in) and the countless lynchings happening to Black Americans. As per usual modes of White American fear, American law enforcement took Black defiance of any kind as a major threat and then worked overtime to discredit, jail, and harass those who dared speak. Billie Holiday was down to rage against the system, and “Strange Fruit,” brought her an invigorated sense of purpose. Unfortunately, the song is the only thing that makes sense in this aimless mess of a movie that’s mostly all style and no substance.
The film uses an interview framing device that only infrequently returns to radio host Reginald Lord Divine (Leslie Jordan) talking to songstress Billie Holiday (Andra Day) about her career. Accompanied by her and her assistant Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence), Holiday recounts her experience about how “Strange Fruit” triggered the FBI so much; it put her in their crosshairs for most of her life. At one of her shows, she meets lovestruck fan Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), and Holiday is all too eager to embrace him into her inner circle. Miss Lawrence, her friend Roslyn (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and her band aren’t as trusting and try to warn her against befriending him, but their words fall on deaf ears. While she distracts herself by getting high with junkie Joe (Melvin Gregg), the FBI has her under tight surveillance.
Behind the scenes, J. Edgar Hoover and Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) are working hard to manipulate anything they can that will get Holiday off the stage and into jail. They employ intimidation tactics by attending shows and using every harassment strategy available to persuade her not to sing “Strange Fruit.” This doesn’t deter her, but her flagrant and indiscreet drug use (heroin) is the perfect excuse the government needs to shut her down. It is then Holiday discovers the people who surround her aren’t who they appear to be.
Using dirty-handed COINTELPRO techniques on Holiday, the FBI ropes the singer into the war on drugs by setting her up on drug charges (which features a nice subplot and theme about guilt, regret, and selling out your own people, but it’s never interrogated enough). Holiday wants to sing; it’s her form of activism. We see drugs, sex, and alcohol are coping mechanisms for her past and present traumas, but Holiday never has an opportunity to respond to what she’s going through. The film seems to only care about showing Holiday at her worst: a bisexual drug addict who has terrible luck with men. There are so many shots of Holiday being high, getting high, drinking, having sex, and it becomes a revolving door of the same visuals over and over with little depth to counter it. While it’s meant to convey her trauma, the lynchings she’s experienced, all the pain she’s suffered as Black women in racist, sexist, misogynist, patriarchal White America, it’s mostly just tawdry and never as meaningful as it should be.
It’s no wonder that one of the biggest grievances in the film is inconsistent editing. The cuts are quick and appear random as they happen in the middle of conversations, with abrupt and awkward switches between scenes that feel disconnected from the narrative. When Holiday is on stage, distracting montages play out, which takes away from Andra Day’s exemplary performance. The camera finally sits still when Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” in its entirety—but by that time, there’s little guarantee that your investment in the story hasn’t waned.
The movie’s few saving graces are its sartorial style and Andra Day’s performance. The costumes give Holiday a sense of panache and help the character stand out from the background. The amount of research and effort put into achieving her signature looks is obvious, and appreciated, but unfortunately, ‘Billie Holiday’ needs more. It’s unfair the burden is placed on the actress’s shoulders to elevate the plot into places it can’t reach. Andra Day could’ve been an Oscar frontrunner with better material, but she’s confined to the script’s TV-drama-like rules. What is “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” want to say? That J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI are a piece of sh*t? Sure, but that’s so on the nose. It could speak to moral awakenings—like when white characters decide to disengage from white supremacy, and the audience gets to applaud themselves for “learning” through the character (ala “Green Book”). Still, nope, the film doesn’t go there either. What about the complexities of “Strange Fruit” and why it’s so polarizing to the country? Sorry, Daniels’ film doesn’t try to unpack that either. Every opportunity for nuance is squandered and sacrificed in the name of some spectacle. Even one of the film’s most emotionally harrowing sequences—one that tries to reckon with a lynching— is initially searing and then pivots away in favor of distracting, unnecessary dream sequences and stylish fever nightmares.
What’s left is Billie Holiday’s pain, struggle, abuse, and heartache, which feels all too familiar, and sometimes even a little too gaudy; overly concerned with patina and sheen rather than the radical notion of a challenging cry against the inhumanity of racism and the bravery behind it. Sadly, Daniels’ film never does much symbolic or emotional justice to Holiday’s suffering, nor the evocative and wrenchingly imprinted trauma of blood on the leaves. [C-]