August 2, 2021

The tortuous life of Lady Day

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a biopic about the famous jazz singer directed by Lee Daniels (The butler, Precious). The director also co-writes the script with Suzan-Lori Parks (Genius, Dreams of Freedom), based on the book written by the journalist Johann Hari “Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs”. Narra la vida y carrera de la legendaria Billie Holiday. The story focuses on the years of persecution she suffered by the United States Federal Department of Narcotics that used her drug addiction to try to eliminate her from the art scene as a danger to the social stability of the nation. It is starring Second Day, Trevante Rhodes (Blind, Predator), Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll, Antibirth), Da’Vine Joy Randolph (How to survive in a material world (Kajillionaire), Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Tone Bell Y Evan Ross. The film is distributed by eOne Films and it was released in Spain on the day March 31, 2021.

The erratic portrait of a complex woman

It is always risky to face a biopic. Making a biographical film about a remarkable figure in the collective history is conditioned by the memories we have of her. Often the vision of the character tends to be romanticized or his shadows and defects are forgotten. At other times, their true importance tends to be magnified, creating a kind of glorification of the events narrated. This does not happen in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Some of the darkest passages related to the singer are openly faced, however, the approach made by the director Lee Daniels It couldn’t be more erratic and inconsistent.

We are facing a movie that wants to be too many things at once. Billie Holiday, in addition to having a very particular voice, he had a complex personality full of contradictions that the director of the sugary Precious it does not know how to capture in all its intensity. And see that he tries the easiest way, that of effectism. Over the course of 130 minutes, she explores each of the recesses of the singer’s career and piles them with messy and chaotic images. There is room for drama and for comedy. To show his talent and musical influence, but also his addiction to drugs and alcohol. It shows us his hectic sexual and sentimental life, as well as his self-destructive capacity in those relationships. And all that, while outlining a tale of an epic activist against government authorities. There is a lot of truth in everything that is told, but the same thing happens to the director as in The Butler, he wants to cover more than he can and is overwhelmed in his narrative ambition.

A sus pies, Andra Lady Day

Not everything is bad in The United States against Billie Holiday. The presence of the singer Andra Day Interpreting Lady Day It is a success and a true discovery for the cinema. His work is as visceral as it is sensitive. It is so full of nuances that it shines in each of the planes. She is the movie. It is placed on the skin of Billie Holiday and he even dares to perform a repertoire of iconic songs with his own voice. The result is fascinating. Andra Day he amazes on stage, but also when he has to deal with the emotional ups and downs of his character. The director takes advantage of the musical part and the scenic reconstruction of the live concerts. It gives the actress the leading role and that benefits all those sequences.

Everything that surrounds Billie’s ambiguous romantic relationship with Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, played by a sosainas, works much worse. Trevante Rhodes. In general, that part is pretty badly told and it never gets us the least bit interested. The self-destructive need that the singer has derived from a traumatic past and which she channels through different abusive relationships remains quite poorly defined. For this, some individual elements are outlined with an effective scene in flashback, but overall Lee Daniels he is in a hurry to reel off all parallel issues in an impossive way and without balancing the tone well. There are moments that border on the grotesque.

The strangest and bitter fruit

The subplot that serves as the main axis for this biopic is the persecution suffered by the singer by Harry J. Anslinger of the Federal Office of Narcotics. Her crusade against the jazz diva landed her in jail for eight months for possession of heroin. It was only a disguise of a white sheet under which the institutional racism that harassed her was hidden. There are still tail blows that mimic some judicial decisions of that time, so it is not by chance that in recent years we have found a large number of films and series that have normalized talking about the past as a simile to portray racism today. As an example of reference we have the anthology Small Axe (Steve McQueen, 2021).

The social claim of The United States vs. Billie Holiday focuses on the heartbreaking song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday that would later be interpreted by other singers as Nina Simone. The lyrics speak metaphorically about the bitter fruit that hangs from the trees. He is actually referring to the corpses of black people who were tortured and lynched by white men. It was a subject that was considered too subversive and for that reason it was tried to prohibit that it interpreted that song with the excuse that it could encourage possible disturbances on the part of the Afro-American community.

As we see, The United States vs. Billie Holiday it is full of interesting topics that could have turned this biography into a passionate journey through the life of a jazz myth. At the same time it was an opportunity to take a tour through the history of a country and bring out all its shame. However, the script does not find a way to combine all these elements and ends up being a rather disappointing telefilm film. It is not up to the character. Luck is that Andra Day She is superb and ensures that we do not take our eyes off the screen during each of her appearances. Just for her, the movie is worth seeing.


What do you think of the movie?

The United States vs. Billie Holiday