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Many Billie Holiday fans may be left frustrated and perplexed by “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” now streaming on Hulu. I am not one of them.
It’s worth seeing for vocalist Andra Day’s first big dramatic role, for starters. She’s simply terrific or, rather, complexly so; she captures the vocal timbre of the real Holiday, both singing and speaking, but this is no impersonation in search of an interpretation.
The subject’s pain, her toughness, the ravages and the dangerous allure of addiction, the casual, throwaway mutterings of an artist hounded by too many adversaries: It’s all there. It’s just not in the usual order, or in a conventional realm of biopic where ensuring the protagonist is forever sympathetic, either in poses of triumph or disaster, is the priority. Rather, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” explores the in-between spaces. For every vignette or casting choice that doesn’t pay off, there are two more that do.
Working from a script by playwright and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks, director Lee Daniels’s film floats all over the place. By design it throws much of its story to the conflicted real-life FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), assigned to infiltrate Holiday’s inner circle so the feds can nail the singer on narcotics charges, take away her cabaret license and not incidentally get her to stop singing the song “Strange Fruit.”
With its lastingly horrific images of “Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze,” the poem turned song lyric by Abel Meeropol found its optimal voice in Holiday. Targeted by Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the hard-living Holiday became, if not Public Enemy No. 1, then at least — in the eyes of white law enforcement — the symbol of Black jazz corruption and corrupting influence.
The movie begins in 1957, two years before Holiday’s death. She’s sitting down for an interview (Leslie Jordan plays her sycophantic interrogator, too campy by half) which takes her back to 1947 and screenwriter Parks’s leitmotif: Holiday’s relationship to her signature song. “I gotta be pretty high to sing that one,” she says. Daniels’s film illustrates why.
It does not stint on harsh depictions of Holiday’s sexual exploitation, frank acknowledgement of her bisexual love life, her vicious, unforgivable husbands or the emotional turbulence that fed that unforgettable voice. Some scenes make for an extraordinarily grueling experience. In one frightening segue, Holiday endures a terrible beating backstage that segues into a quiet, devastating moment where she’s bandaged for cracked ribs just before going back out onstage again. Daniels handles that scene truthfully and well, without false histrionics. Other bits feel contrived, and some of the actors simply aren’t up to it, beginning with Jordan’s interviewer and continuing with Rhodes’ serviceable but limited portrayal of Fletcher.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” arrives hard on the heels of the documentary “MLK/FBI” and the bracing docudrama “Judas and the Black Messiah.” All three remind us of America’s malleable, ever-threatening notion of how, and how far, to take surveillance and violence against its official and unofficial enemies of the state.
“Judas” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” remind us of something else, too. These are dramatizations, not documentaries. There’s no use using that distinction against them. Ever since Daniels’s breakout 2009 film “Precious,” the director has made his push toward expressive artifice and theatricality part of every project, through the crazily uneven historical drama “The Butler” and the just-plain-crazy adaptation of “The Paperboy.”
Some visual elements, persistent ones, in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” feel second-hand and misjudged; the reliance on slow dissolves, for example, seems at first to be a nod to the 1972 biopic “Lady Sings the Blues,” but by the end it has become predictable shorthand for a woman’s life as filtered through an opiate haze. On the other hand, the staging and finesse of some individual shots can take your breath away. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as Holiday, holding her dog under her umbrella, crossing a rainy, neon-splashed street at night. (There’s also a scene set in Mister Kelly’s in Chicago, circa 1954.)
Parks’s writing has meant a lot to me for decades now, beginning with her dense, hypnotic early stage plays (“The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World”) and more recently with less squirrely but no less impressive works (“Father Comes Home From the Wars”). Her work in the movies, more sporadic and uneven, includes Spike Lee’s “Girl 6.” In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” she slides back and forth through Holiday’s life, at one point using a heroin fix to take both her and agent Fletcher on a psychic tour of her bruising Baltimore childhood.
Parks based her script, in part, on Johann Hari’s nonfiction book “Chasing the Scream,” about America’s war on drugs and the price so many paid in its wake. Parks and Daniels may not know how to incorporate everything they’re trying to manage in 130 minutes here, but the movie is seriously invested in examining how addiction informed Holiday’s life and work. (Clint Eastwood’s “Bird,” the Charlie Parker story, utterly blew that angle, settling for a few uncomprehending finger-wags.) On screen, as we see Holiday in blurred states of sobriety and disorientation and grief and fleeting happiness, the crucial performance feels authentic to the core. The movie — certainly Daniels’s best since “Precious” — is as turbulent and zigzaggy as Holiday’s life no doubt felt like to the woman who lived it. If this risky movie hits some bum notes, Andra Day cannot be found anywhere in the vicinity.
‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ — 3 stars
MPAA Rating: R (for drug use, domestic violence, language, nudity and mature themes)
Running time: 2:10
Where to watch: Hulu
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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