The United States Vs Billie Holiday

Directed By Lee Daniels

Starring – Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund

The Plot – Follows Holiday (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 (Rhodes), with whom she had a tumultuous affair.

Rated R for nudity, adult language, and sequences involving violence and drug use

(1) The United States vs. Billie Holiday – Trailer (Official) • A Hulu Original – YouTube


– Timely production. Without question, the biggest benefit that the film exudes in competently bridging the gap between streaming and big screen quality is the transformational element within the imagery that continuously breeds believability within the scope of its 1940’s and 50’s settings. The production designs and wardrobe are especially obvious in this aspect, articulating the jazz-dominant age of musical culture with a series of free-flowing gowns and three-piece suits that gives the tastes behind the scenes a touch of upper class elegance to our delight. The sets and backdrops are gorgeously rendered between live action and computer generated enhancements, especially that of New York City, which is alluring with the lights and pageantry of the city during its electrical reconstruction. All of these offer a three-dimensional quality to what we’re constantly drinking in, attaining depth in a particular place in time that is visually conveyed in nearly every frame throughout.

– Endless Holiday. Because this is a Billie Holiday film, we are treated to a collection of time-honored tracks for the artist that topically showcases how the singer used music as a weapon to counteract many of society’s biggest problems. Such track selections involve the obvious, like “All of Me”, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, or “Strange Fruit”, which Time Magazine named as its song of the century in 1989, but the real amazement for this writer came in the deep cuts, like “I Cried For You” and “Lover Man”, which are visually interpreted through the engagements and relationships that define Billie’s life for better or worse. It’s a complete assortment that not only audibly illustrates what about the singer made her timelessly cherished among her peers, but also preserves meaning in music that very many artists were using for the time, but none with the kind of sharp-tongued edginess that inspired as many as she alienated.

– Experimental instances. We’re often reminded of what kind of film “The United States Vs Billie Holiday” could’ve been if Daniels trusted his inspirational voice, and carved out elements of creativity that could’ve given this film lasting life in the minds of the average moviegoer. These instances take place during the film’s much better second half, particularly in a couple of long-take shot compositions from cinematographer and long-time Daniels collaborator Andrew Dunn, who wisks our vantage point in and out of various conversations and character movements that grant us an immersive quality to being a spectator amongst the madness. In addition to this, a fantasy sequence at the beginning of the film’s third act is without question the best part of the movie for me personally, for the way it metaphorically breaks down Billie’s mental barriers, and gives us a look inside at the torturous childhood that brought forth the awakening force before us. It’s unfortunate that a majority of this film doesn’t ride the same level of originality that these sequences contain, but they do prescribe this idea that Daniels should’ve engaged himself in being every bit as fearless and daring as his titular leading lady.

– The Day in Holiday. If there’s one exceptional performance throughout this film, I’m thankful it’s from Audra Day, who carves out a breakthrough performance channeling the vulnerability in Billie that makes her relatable through questionable decisions in her morale. Day elicits a full blown transformation in the leading role that feels too authentic to ever feel like an impression, and matches such visual articulation with some audible gifts that allow her to further sink herself into the role. One such occasion is in the actual singing from Day, which perfectly channels Billie’s distinct raspy tone, and long-winded deliveries that are anything but safe in the eyes of an acting artist trying to fill some immensely big shoes. It’s an eye-opening turn that is occasionally spellbinding for the level of authenticity Day delivers toward bringing this figure back to life for two more hours, and like Holiday maintains much of the heavy lifting that continuously keeps the train rolling to the next town.


– Sloppy structure. To say this film lacked focus and stability is putting it lightly. So instead, I will say that screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks stitches together a series of pieces that never converge together to make one cohesive project with a linear style of storytelling that makes it easy for the audience to engage in and follow along from home. It often feels like Parks has taken everything (And I do mean EVERYTHING) that she has learned from Holiday’s Wikipedia page, and dispersed it in a spontaneous measure that never feels magnetic from scene to scene, and instead feels desperate in trying to instill as many moments from Holiday’s life that don’t always translate well or entertaining to film. Because of such, a two hour film frequently feels rushed, especially during the variety of partners Holiday occasionally trades away for, like a game of musical chairs. Because we’re given very little time with each dynamic, we never can fully invest ourselves to what we’re being presented. It makes for an arduous experience that is the cause for many of the other problems I will touch on, and proves that ten years in the life of Holiday feels like fifteen exhausting lifetimes over.

– Inconsistent pacing. This exits because of a show-over-tell mentality that a majority of the screenplay’s events persist through, giving us a timeless cliche in the world of cinema that directors never tire from, regardless of how it has aged like rotten eggs. I am of course talking about musical montages, to which this movie has seven of them (Yes, I counted). That’s seven different instances where valuable exposition could’ve been used to tie the rapid falls of subplots together to seamlessly transition, but if nothing else it gives us a chance to sample what feels like the only earned characteristic of Holiday’s registry; that she’s a singer, thanks in whole to one of her songs playing during each scene summary. This not only kept me from fully investing myself to the narrative, due to the abundance of changes it constantly makes within its lack of focus, but also proved to be detrimental for the pacing of the movie, which only finds its feet in the third and final act, and by then it’s far too late to make amends for musical storytelling.

– Choppy editing. The last musical biopic that I ever want to be reminded of again is “Bohemian Rhapsody”, not only for its inaccuracies of the factual dates it constantly skewers, but also for the worst editing of the cinematic year, in which it somehow won the Oscar for. If the same goes for this film, then Daniels has a lot to look forward to, but it still doesn’t change the fact that there’s a deviation in this movie between scenes screeching to a grinding halt, and scenes transitioning with strange outdated fades, and it all feels like a gutsy spin on trying to convey if its audience is in fact paying attention to what is transpiring visually in frame. For the record, I was, but only because the editing schemes in the technique were changing every ten minutes, which kept me interested for all of the wrong reasons. It makes it feel like many different visionaries were involved in cutting and pasting this film together, but is perhaps the biggest benefit to understanding Holiday’s decaying mentality, so bonus points???

– Insultingly low-brow. I’m not foolish enough to think that a true story biopic on a singer won’t be without a series of taboo instances and personal conflicts that appeal to the intrigue of the character. However, the abundance of material that this film sifts through more than crosses the line of excessive, unnecessarily gratuitous, and most definitely exploitative on its way to accurately channeling Holiday’s whirlwind life. The problem comes to the legacy of the singer, whom the film doesn’t portray in even passable light. In the film’s instance, she’s not smart, is a complete sex fiend, and very selfish when it comes to friends she often leaves for dead. This is characterization in some land over the rainbow, but here on Earth it’s probably challenging for family of the deceased who are left with this now polarizing vantage point that has been made public for millions to endure. On the subject of sexualization, I’m fine with a film having a sex scene, but having three with detailed nudity is a bit excessive on the necessities of a film, and serves as a metaphorical instance of the liberties this script took in outlining a life that is anything but conventional for its central protagonist.

– Unexplored avenues. There were plenty of character and story directions that I wish the film would’ve explored further, and are made all the more painful for the way the film chalantly glances over them. One is obviously the fantasy backstory sequence that I previously mentioned. Aside from this being the best scene of the film, it also raises the most questions about the moments that shaped Billie. In addition to this, the hinted at lesbian love interest of the film (Played by Natasha Lyonne) goes completely unexplored with the exception of one scene where the duo has trouble at a hotel because of racial divides, and not necessarily sexuality ones. It wastes away any semblance of dramatic intrigue for gay relations, which were just as shunned as the black population for the time. Finally, I could’ve used more emphasis from the listener’s perspective, especially that of the black population, and what Billie’s music meant for them. The movie tells us how big Billie was, but never shows it in a way that equates to the level of fame that Billie and very few others attained, dramatically underscoring her importance to tragedies that are unfortunately still being felt to this day.

– Underwhelming direction. Daniels has never, and probably will never be one of my favorite directors in cinema, and this reason solidifies a lot of the reason why. For one, it’s as evident as its title, which receives very little focus, both in and out of court, to the interest of the audience. There’s also very little earned and maintained drama throughout, which in turn undervalues the primary genre that this movie perceived itself as. With no tension, or teasing, or foreshadowing of any kind, the antagonists and the movie’s primary conflicts just seem to arise with very little heft behind them, feeling like an occasional speed bump instead of the life-altering relentlessness that history has better conveyed. Finally, the characterization and motivation of the supporting cast is disappointing to say the least, wasting big name talent like Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund, Trevante Rhodes, and Tyler James, and never establishing who they are outside of the band, and why they are so pivotal to Billie’s life. The actors themselves make the best of what they’re given (Very little), but can’t fully overcome the flawed execution that has added another installment to Daniels’ already underwhelming filmography.

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

3 thoughts on “The United States Vs Billie Holiday

  1. I had this one on the back burner for a while, because I love biographical films, especially when they’re done well. Sounds like the film was anything but well done. It sounds like the main actress is truly committed to the material, but everyone else was either misguided or just didn’t care. This probably could’ve been a great movie with a better director and a more refined screenplay. As is, it sounds like such a drab and uninteresting film that barely respects the person that it’s supposed to be about. I could feel your disappointment and frustration in every word you wrote which is more than enough to keep me away from this one. Fantastic job!

  2. Too bad this is so poorly rated. In this time of black cultural awareness, it could have added to learning while being entertained by a movie. I wouldn’t have minded learning about Billie Holiday, but I’ll pass on this one.

  3. The year started with great films, now it seems anything worth while is getting pushed to the wayside or ends in poor execution. It’s sad really , but as always I trust your review and though I had little interest in this title I will pass.

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