Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Suzan-Lori Parks, following Billie Holiday (Andra Day) during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), with whom she had a tumultuous affair. Also starring: Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Miss Lawrence, Tyler James Williams, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Evan Ross, Erik LaRay Harvey, Natasha Lyonne and Leslie Jordan.

Bringing to life an icon like Billie Holiday is a hefty weight to lay upon any actor’s shoulders, but to take it on with limited acting experience is a daring task and yet Andra Day stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. Day gives a layered, complex and emotional performance entirely befitting the story of Holiday’s life. The sheer amount of hurt, betrayal and resistance that she has to work through requires a difficult balance of vulnerability and resilience, and Day hits the perfect note. Her performance is equally as heart-breaking as it is inspiring. Portraying the complicated, to say the least, relationship she had with Jimmy is equally as difficult but Day and Rhodes have a very natural chemistry. Rhodes brings a very charming, sturdy presence but also has his own layers to explore with Jimmy’s growing internal conflict about the role the government has him playing.

There’s a string of stellar support by Day’s side, including Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Holiday’s right hand woman, she gives a confident, caring performance with a strong personality. Miss Lawrence brings some light comic relief from a rather heavy story, with a quick wit and a sharp but flirtatious tongue. Rob Morgan gives another strong performance, he’s an actor who’s superb at making a strong impression no matter how brief the appearance. The entire cast is a terrific variety of actors who all have something to bring to the table. Although it’s a shame not to see more from Natasha Lyonne’s Tallulah Bankhead who felt like a slight add-on rather than fully involved.

Billie Holiday is a household name, she’s soothed the hearts and minds of millions across the world for decades with her music but behind that is a lot of pain and suffering. This is a tragic tale of a strong, intelligent and determined woman pushing to stand up for what she believes in and being used and abused because of it. It’s infuriating to watch how much she’s at the mercy of these heartless men because it’s captured so well. If you weren’t already aware of her story, you will unquestionably have a newfound respect for her after watching this film. Parks’ writing isn’t afraid to show that she wasn’t perfect, being an icon or hero does not mean that you have to be a saint. Showing her drug use emphasises the damage that was being done to her and does not at all undermine her achievements or dedication. It easily gets across the horrifying degree of how far the government were willing to go to silence Holiday, and depressingly it was probably even worse in reality. Parks does well to keep a good pace going for the most part but towards the end it does start to trail off and slightly lessens its final impact.

Daniels’ direction is extremely consistent in bringing through the atmosphere of its period, its opening immediately sends you back to the golden age of Hollywood and the height of Jazz. Especially when it’s supported by some absolutely stunning costume work. There’s an emotional edge to the style that he chooses, it’s very much in the vein of paying tribute in exploring her story. It doesn’t attempt to add grit or flash, it lets the darkness and tragic edge naturally reveal itself which may feel overly sentimental for some. However, there’s one particular scene where he steps outside of that otherwise entrancing style and it lets the rest of the film down. It briefly tries to bend the reality and play around with emphasising the emotions of the moment but ends up undercutting them. From that point the tone is slightly changed and it loses the great energy it had built up and strides less confidently to its finale.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday gives a view into the harsh life of an icon. Andra Day does a phenomenal job of bringing Holiday’s resilience and spirit to the screen, she’s heart-breaking and inspiring. There are a couple of bumps along the way and it potentially could have reined in its runtime a little to keep a more consistently strong energy but it’s an eye-opening story. Most importantly it does justice to a woman whose world was against her but she refused to let them win right to the very end.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½

Available on Hulu from 26th February
& Sky Cinema from 27th February

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