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the united states vs. billie holiday

★★

director: lee daniels (precious, the butler)

starring: andra day, trevante rhodes, tyler james williams and garrett hedlund

 

REVIEWER: lyall carter

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics launches an undercover sting operation against jazz singer Billie Holiday.

Although I was vaguely aware of Billie Holiday as an African-American icon and an incredible jazz singer, I wanted to discover more of her life story through this film. Although The United States vs. Billie Holiday stumbles more than it soars, it is more than worth the admission to witness Andra Day’s performance. One of this year's best. 

From Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels (The Butler), The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a raw and heartfelt examination that takes an intimate look at the struggles with fame, love and addiction of the legendary Billie Holiday (Andra Day), one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time who was celebrated for her exceptional talent and glamorous style.

But as her profile and influence grew in 1940s America, the federal government targeted Holiday, aiming to stop her from singing her controversial and heart-wrenching ballad, “Strange Fruit” – and silence her by any means necessary.

Narratively The United States vs. Billie Holiday appears to be unsure what kind of film it really is. A pure biopic? An examination of race or sexism in America? Or an exploration on how the government made drugs a racial issue? Because of its lack of narrative direction The United States vs. Billie Holiday feels long and bloated with storylines that hit dead ends and some undeveloped characters with arcs that go nowhere. 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is at its strongest when it's not saying ‘this is racist’ but showing us racism at play in Holiday’s everyday life. There’s one scene where she has an altercation with an African American bellboy that is truly powerful or when the completely white office floor is shocked when African American agent Jimmy Fletcher walks into the office. Instead it settles for lazy stereotypes of the racist agent that’s after Billie with barely an explanation as to what motivates his pursuit.

The ace that The United States vs. Billie Holiday has up its sleeve is Andra Day’s performance. It is mind blowingly good. Day commands the screen and hits every note from Holiday’s drug fuelled stupors to her glamorous crooning. Day completely transforms herself into Holiday which makes The United States vs. Billie Holiday more than worth a watch. 

Although The United States vs. Billie Holiday stumbles more than it soars, it is more than worth the admission to witness Andra Day’s performance. One of this year's best.

★★