“The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” produced by Lee Daniels known for “The Butler” and “Precious,” tries to tell two important stories and instead makes both weaker because of it.
Although there is an almost endless about material to create a film about Billie Holiday, this film chooses to center around Holiday’s controversial hit “Strange Fruit,” which is a song detailing the lynching of African Americans in the South. The film follows how the FBI wanted Holiday to stop singing the song and launched an investigation into her complicated personal life.
Leading Actress: Andra Day gives a strong performance in her portrayal of Holiday, which isn’t surprising since Day herself has stated that singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Holiday were an inspiration for her to become a singer. Her performance is made all the more impressive due to her limited roles in the film industry.
Restraint: The film is not apologetic in what it shows. The film is rated R, a very appropriate rating because it is not afraid to show Lady Day’s struggles with drugs, men and the racial tensions at the time.
Pacing: This is probably the film’s biggest flaw. It is almost impossible to tell where the climax of the movie is or where the transitions from each act are. Instead, the film just tells us that people are starting to get uneasy with Holiday performing her song but never shows anything. (Spoilers) The most impactful scene of the film could have been when Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” in front of a packed crowd in the South. But, the scene takes place halfway through the film, so there is still an hour left of the movie to go, and doesn’t even mention that she is in the South until after the performance is over and never touches on the impact of this performance.
Editing: The film chooses odd fadeouts between scenes. In one instance, it will be a normal fadeout and the next will turn into a black-and-white film for a few seconds or the next, the colors will be hypersensitive. The film also took some strange artistic licenses, such as fast forwarding or having more upbeat music playing over a dramatic and darker scene.
Strange Fruit: (Minor spoilers) The film, from the beginning, makes the audience believe that the story will center around the impact that “Strange Fruit” had around the country as Holiday bravely defied the government’s wishes and sang it. While that element is definitely in the movie, especially around the first 20 minutes or so, it gets bogged down as the film begins to focus more on her drug and sex addictions than her performing. So when it comes up again towards the end, it comes as a surprise because even though there are numerous performances, “Strange Fruit” is missing from a lot of them as, in the film, Holiday refused audience members requesting it.
This film did not have an easy task in choosing to tell Lady Day’s story. So much happened to her throughout her life that it seems dishonest if any of it is left out. Andra Day’s performance is commendable and praise-worthy, but unfortunately this film can’t decide on whether to tell her biopic or talk about the impacts of her most controversial song and the effects it has on the public, which results in the film telling two weaker stories instead of one strong one.
Rating: Lower your expectations