There’s something so exciting about a revelatory performance like that of Andra Day in The United States vs Billie Holiday, an otherwise middling bio-pic of the legendary singer.
Day’s effervescent portrayal of the jazz icon earnt her an Oscar nomination, an incredible feat for a first-time actor, some might say impossible, and usually an honour that goes to child actors.
It’s a visceral and committed performance that evokes Holiday’s incredible presence and charisma, but also her pain.
The benefit of a great performance is all the more notable when the movie itself missteps on as many levels as the uneven The United States vs Billie Holiday does, because it elevates a forgettable film into a memorable one.
Day’s Oscar chances are outside, but if she were to pull it off, she would be the second consecutive portrayal of a troubled female singer in a mediocre film after Renée Zellweger’s win for playing Judy Garland in Judy.
With Holiday having lived a dramatic life from beginning to end, director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) wisely chooses to focus on her brawl with the federal government over her song Strange Fruit. Actually, brawl would suggest that it was a two-sided fight. The more accurate word would be persecution.
Holiday was targeted by the government who exploited her drug dependency as a pressure point to have her stop singing Strange Fruit, a harrowing and raw protest song about the propensity of the American south to lynch black people.
For federal agent Harry Aslinger (Garrett Hedlund) and his overlord J. Edgar Hoover, Strange Fruit is a threat to the America they were “protecting”.
For Holiday’s fans and community, Strange Fruit represented a metaphorical call to arms, a powerful acknowledgment of the deep injustice in their own home. And she was an influential voice that carried the message.
Aslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who thought jazz was the devil’s work, relentlessly pursued Holiday over many years, using the cover of her heroin use to recruit young black federal agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to infiltrate her circle.
As commentary on the government’s unscrupulous practices, The United States vs Billie Holiday is the fourth film in recent times – Seberg, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah being the others – that looks specifically at how the American government employed subterfuge to persecute those it considered radicals.
Taken as a whole, it’s an oeuvre of work that forms a stronger picture of the dogmatic line taken by the government. On its own, what unfolds in The United States vs Billie Holiday is more preoccupied with the effects on Holiday than it is on the movement as a whole.
That’s a valid position to take but it also makes the film seem a little fuzzy, as if it wants to go harder at the civil rights piece but didn’t.
As for Holiday’s struggles, it labours to provide context for her drug use – a traumatic childhood and increasing pressures – while only hinting at how black communities were entrapped by narcotics because of the conditions foisted upon them.
The film is frequently disjointed, with scenes cut too quickly or jarringly edited while the tone loses consistency as the movie goes on. A hyper-stylised sequence late in the film that is supposed to reveal the roots of Holiday’s many psychological wounds ends up being overdone, one more indulgence that can’t be borne, while a Keystone Cops-inspired scene is baffling at best.
When it does work is when Day is onstage, imbued with the spirit and resilience of Holiday, a dazzling and magnetic performer.
She outclasses and saves an otherwise humdrum movie.
United States vs. Billie Holiday is in cinemas from Thursday, April 22
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