Message in the Music – The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2020)

The straight-to-streaming model has had a very interesting rollout over the last year. It has proven to be a very successful model for the streaming services that buy up distribution rights. That is how Hulu got its hands on Lee Daniels’ latest film and branded it as a “Hulu Original” despite not being involved in the production. The United States vs. Billie Holiday covers a wide range of ideas with substantial emotional and historical gravity.

Andra Day didn’t shy away from the challenge of Holiday’s songs for the role

Sometimes, a song is more than just a song. That’s the focal point of the film, as the singer is plagued by addiction and targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics as an enemy of America when, in reality, the target on her back exists to stop her from performing the song “Strange Fruit” that vividly depicts the lynching of Black Americans and served as a protest song that helped start the Civil Rights Movement.

The latest film from Lee Daniels was adapted for the screen, from Johann Hari’s book “Chasing the Scream”, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Daniels’ films keep emotion at the forefront and that’s no different here, but the story does get a little bogged down with the back-and-forth love interest angle that wasn’t accurate to the source material anyway. That relationship exists for the purpose of exposition and functions well in the role. The chemistry is also really strong, so I can see wanting that to be on camera, but the movie feels a bit long at 2-hours 10-minutes.

While this relationship was embellished for the sake of the film, Day and Rhodes are great together

As advertised, Andra Day is mesmerizing in the lead as Lady Day and it’s no surprise she took home a Golden Globe for her heartbreaking portrayal. She embodies such a wide range of powerful emotions, it’s nearly impossible not to get sucked in. Plus, all that singing you hear in the movie is her voice. She did a lot of drinking and smoking to capture the sound of the iconic Jazz singer and it elevated the performance to another level. Although the aforementioned relationship with Black federal agent Jimmy Fletcher wasn’t substantiated, the chemistry between Day and Trevante Rhodes is undeniable. The push and pull of the agent who’s tasked with bringing Holiday down, but can’t help fall for her, makes for compelling storytelling and Rhodes plays the lovestruck, misguided love interest with tremendous efficiency. 

Miss Lawrence plays Miss Freddy, one of Holiday’s closest friends, with unmistakable flair

There are also some great turns in the supporting roles by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Tyler James Williams, Miss Lawrence, and the highly underrated Rob Morgan. Considering Garret Hedlund was appropriately despicable as head of the Narcotics Bureau, Harry Anslinger, I was surprised he wasn’t more central to the narrative. He’s there but it’s more Fletcher’s story than his as far as the Narcotics Bureau goes.

Andrew Dunn’s cinematography is subtly strong but he captures the key performative moments with magnitude. The costume design must have been incredibly fun for Paolo Nieddu diving into the late-30s and 40s and you can see how important fashion was to paint the picture of that era. And let’s not forget the soundtrack is fantastic as well. 

All of the production design elements were on point, Da’Vine Joy Randolph (left) and Andra Day (right)

This was a very interesting and emotionally informed film that has more than enough substance to resonate with modern audiences. I haven’t seen all of Daniels’ films, but this is probably my favorite so far.

Recommendation: See it for Andra Day’s captivating performance as Billie Holiday and for the contextual history that goes along with it. 

Streaming now on Hulu

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