Follows Holiday during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair.
Music biopics are a popular genre and with good reason, as they provide an opportunity to learn more about a celebrated artists life whilst their music forms a backdrop to the narrative. Billie Holiday is the latest artist to get the biopic treatment, with director Lee Daniels moving back to feature filmmaking after lengthy stints on the musical TV shows ‘Empire’ and ‘Star’. Singer Andra Day, in her movie debut as a lead, plays Billie Holiday, with the script focusing on the harassment Holiday suffered from law enforcement throughout much of her life. ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ covers most of her life and attempts to portray how this increased scrutiny was an undoubted factor in the deterioration of Holiday’s health, ultimately leading to her early death at 44.
The best thing about this movie is undoubtedly Andra Day, who is really brilliant at capturing both Holiday as performer, and Holiday as person, with both sides of her character fueling the other. In terms of the movie itself, it suffers from the same issues that many biopics in face in that it tries to cover too much and that leads to a screenplay that moves around a lot with little regard for the overarching narrative. It’s been a feature of much of Daniels work (particularly on TV – ‘Empire’ especially) and it works for splashy soap opera dramas, but trying to apply it to this material doesn’t work nearly as well and ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ feels like a series of loosely connected vignettes, with no overall momentum to the story. Day’s performance ensures this is always watchable but it would have undoubtedly benefited from sharper editing and a tighter focus on Holiday’s life.
‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ is worth watching for Andra Day and to learn more about Holiday against a soundtrack of some of her finest tracks, but this is a classic example of a film where the performance deserves a better film to surround it, and unfortunately this isn’t it.
Directed By: Lee Daniels
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams, Tone Bell, Erik LaRay Harvey, Melvin Gregg, Dana Gourrier and Leslie Jordan