The United States vs. Billie Holiday Review: Andra Day Shows Serious Performing Skills

Photo Courtesy: Hulu

For director Lee Daniels (Precious) recounting the story of jazz singer Billie Holiday was a part of American history that needed to be told.

The Academy Award nominee recalls seeing 1972’s Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, in which Diana Ross made her feature film debut. He was 13. "The movie changed my life," Daniels said during a virtual press conference on February 3. "I saw these two Black people [Ross and Billy Dee Williams] on screen. I’ve never seen beautiful people like that before kissing, loving each other. The fashion, the music..."

The United States vs. Billie Holiday — which started streaming on Hulu on February 26 — is not Lady Sings the Blues. Daniels produces and directs this new take on Holiday’s life based on a screenplay from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog). Parks adapted her script from Johann Hari’s 2015 bestselling book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

The movie, set in the 1940s and 1950s, resists the biopic formula and focuses on the latest years of Holiday’s career. Three-time Grammy Award nominee and singer Andra Day makes her feature performance debut playing the blues legend. The film portrays elements of Holiday’s life that have been explored before: her undeniable talent as a musician, her drug use, her involvement with men that didn’t care for her. The United States vs. Billie Holiday also examines the singer’s relationship with the United States government and makes a case for her status as a civil rights leader.

In the film, Daniels details how the then-Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) dissuaded Holiday from singing "Strange Fruit" — which The United States vs. Billie Holiday describes as a "lyrical, horrifying description of a lynching." Later, "Strange Fruit" became a protest song.

"This jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday woman gotta be stopped. She keeps singing the ‘Strange Fruit’ song and is causing a lot of people to think their own things," Garrett Hedlund’s character says early on in the movie. He plays Harry J. Anslinger, who led the FBN. The government would end up using Holiday’s drug addiction as a pretext to arrest and convict her. Anslinger goes as far as to say in the movie that drugs and Black people — he uses a racist epithet — are "a contamination to our great American civilization."

And here’s one of the main problems in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The movie could have benefited from more subtlety. It would still have been possible to show Anslinger’s racism and Holiday’s activism without the need of spelling everything out for the viewer. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, another 2021 title that deals with the history of racism in America, found a way of incorporating deeply troubled and prejudiced federal agents into the narrative of the story without making them appear oversimplified or one-note.