The United States vs Billie Holiday

Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

The United States vs Billie Holiday
dir Lee Daniels
scr Suzan-Lori Parks
prd Lee Daniels, Jordan Fudge, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Pamela Oas Williams, Tucker Tooley
with Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Miss Lawrence, Leslie Jordan, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams, Tone Bell, Adriane Lenox, Natasha Lyonne
release US/UK 26.Feb.21
21/US 2h10

hedlund morgan randolph
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rhodes and day
Beautifully shot and edited, this biopic explores the hideous way the FBI relentlessly harassed the iconic singer and activist. With vivid performances and lush production design, the film has a terrific sense of musicality, even as it oddly sidesteps her sexuality. Lee Daniels directs the film with an open, raw heart, drawing out genuinely wrenching emotions and a bracing sense of resilience that bring the themes urgently to life.
In 1947, Billie (Day) is a top star who must use service entrances to clubs because of her skin colour. So she insists on singing the anti-lynching ballad Strange Fruit at her concerts. This enrages the overtly racist federal agent Harry (Hedlund), but the only thing he can arrest her for is using drugs, and she's sentenced to a year in prison. Her sell-out comeback in Carnegie Hall is a sensation, but the FBI continues to threaten her career. As do on-off drug use and her relationships with violent men. Then Jimmy (Rhodes) surprises her.
The film opens with a note about a 1937 bill banning lynching, which the Senate failed to pass. And there are a few flickers forward to 1957 as Billie is interviewed by a camp journalist (Jordan) who asks what's it like to be a coloured woman. "Would you ask Doris Day a question like that?" Bille snaps. There are also scenes of her tough childhood. But most of the film consists of lively backstage scenes featuring barbed interaction between Billie and her entourage.

Day is terrific in a demanding role, skilfully underplaying big scenes to make them even more wrenching. She also finds remarkable internal textures in quiet moments and sings the songs gorgeously. Rhodes shines as a superfan with a secret, and his story weaves into into an unexpectedly tender relationship. By contrast, Hedlund is startlingly unapologetic as the ruthless fed. And strong side roles are peppered throughout, including the wonderful Randolph as Billie's fierce assistant Roslyn.

Without preaching, Parks' script has a lot to say about both the Black experience and the nature of addiction ("I need help, not jail time," Billie says). Billie knew the FBI didn't care about drugs: they only used them to silence her, because Strange Fruit reminded them of what they did to her and so many others. This is a devastating story about finding the courage to take on even the most tenacious monsters in order to make a difference as an artist.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 10.Feb.21

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop


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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall