Review by Dan Skip Allen
As a genre, biopics can make for some of the greatest movies ever or they can be pieces of trash. Musical biopics are a way to show the ups and downs of musicians' lives. A lot of musicians have had a rough upbringing or struggles in their lives. As per the title of the film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday deals with Billie Holiday fighting for her rights as a songwriter and entertainer.
Billie Holiday (Andra Day) is a jazz/pop singer in the early 19th century. She is widely considered one of the best ever in her genre of music. She is famous for singing the controversial song "Strange Fruit" which talks about the oppression of African-American people in this country in the past and present. The FBI has it out for her and won't let her sing that song at any concert without repercussions. The lead agent in charge is Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund). He will stop at nothing to prevent Holiday from singing that song.
Day gives an incredible performance as this woman dealing with personal struggles with her relationships, drug addiction, and the government having it out on her. This is one of the most gritty biopics I have ever seen. These films can be preachy or sappy and this one is neither. It gives an eye-opening look at a woman and her life that has rarely been seen before. Lady Sings the Blues was a previous film about Billie Holiday starring Diana Ross. It's nowhere near as good as this film is. It's not hard to compare.
Lee Daniels has had a rough go of it lately. His early films Precious and The Butler garnered a lot of critical and financial success. The Paperboy not so much. He ended up getting into the television game with Empire and Star as series creator and writer. His return to big Hollywood films is quite an achievement. He captured this world that Holiday lives in very nicely. It looked like it's lived in and was real. That's very effective in getting this hard-hitting story across. Daniels has a winner on his hands this time.
I am a fan of a great musical biopic. The best of the genre can capture the ups and downs in these artists' histories. They get to the crux of these performers. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is no different. This film doesn't shy away from the physical abuse she goes through at the hands of her multiple husbands or the intravenous drug use/addiction and eventual death of Holiday. It's painful to watch at times throughout the film.
This film has a vast cast of actors playing various people in Holiday's life and she penetrates as well as the FBI. Another standout is Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) as Jimmy Fletcher, an FBI agent who has feelings for Holiday. He was torn between his duty for his government and his love for Holiday. Leslie Jordan plays a radio show host that interviews Holiday and Daniels use this interview as a framing device. His character doesn't shy away from asking the hard questions.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is one of the best biopics I've seen in recent memory. It gets to the hard-hitting topics and tackles them very adeptly. This film isn't for the lighthearted. Andra Day deserves all the critical praise she's getting because this performance is one of the best of the year. Daniels has assembled all the pieces for a very good look at the tragic life of this amazing singer Billie Holiday.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday streams on Hulu beginning February 26.