Billie Holiday may not have written the jazz standard “All of Me,” but she made it her own in the same way that “At Last” became synonymous with Etta James or “What a Wonderful World” became the signature song of Louis Armstrong. The song underscores the film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, poignantly summing up what the artist gave up, even though that song was not the ire of the FBI. That credit would go to “Strange Fruit” and the film is bookended by facts about the Federal Anti-Lynching Bill from 1937 and 2020, the song itself being a lyrical poem about the attrocieties happening to the African American community.
Sitting down for an interview with Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan, American Horror Story), Billie Holiday (Andra Day, Cars 3) reflects on her life. Her rise to fame was helped in part by a song she wrote called “Strange Fruit” about lynching, which caught the ire of FBI agent Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, Tron: Legacy) who dispatched Black agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) to track the singer’s movements in an effort to catch her with illegal drugs to silence the outspoken artist.
Directed by Lee Daniels, The United States vs. Billie Holiday feeds audiences bursts of the famous singer’s life as she struggles with her own demons while trying to use her platform to inspire change. Based in part on the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, the film shines a spotlight on how The War on Drugs really began with Billie Holiday, tracing the program's racist origins. But what you’re ultimately left with as a viewer is a profile of a courageous individual who risked it all to spread her message.
Andra Day’s performance is magnificent, bringing Billie Holiday to life across several decades in the film. Each time the narrative jumps forward in time, you feel her modifying her portrayal, even just to showcase the deterioration of the singer’s voice after years of smoking. The film keeps the darkest parts of Holiday’s past as a well-kept secret until the third act when, through a dreamlike heroine-induced sequence, it all comes spilling out. You won’t soon forget her powerful performance and while the entire cast is giving it their all, Andra Day absolutely shines.
As a period film, Lee Daniels makes the creative choice to incorporate archival footage to help set the scene, often aging up the new footage to match these sequences before transitioning back to modern cinematography esthetics. At the same time, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is very modern in its approach with an abundance of language and scenes of intimacy that border on pornographic. Some of it is designed to push boundaries and make audiences feel a certain level of discomfort, but at times it also feels like it overshadows more important themes.
The film lingers in simplistic performances of Billie Holiday on stage, but creatively choses songs that help support the narrative beats. There are some pacing challenges over the course of its lengthy runtime and in its quest for historical accuracy, it introduces a lot of characters that prove inconsequential to the story’s main thruline. But you have to applaud the ambitious efforts in this biopic and it ultimately proves its point, which is that the U.S. government committed a great injustice against a Black woman who sang her truth for all to hear.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday tells the story of a woman who carried the weight of the world on her shoulders and did the best she could under extreme circumstances. It leaves the audience with a lot of thoughts about the history of racism and mental health practices, and thinking about other celebrities that have been built up and torn down over the years. It gives you a better understanding of how we got to where we are today by going back in time to see the dawning of the War on Drugs for what it really was.
I give The United States vs. Billie Holiday 4 out of 5 stars.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.