Andra Day delivers a star-making performance as Lady Day, aka Billie Holiday in Hulu’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday from director Lee Daniels. The film is written by Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapts author Johann Hari’s book “Chasing the Scream.” Director Daniels opens his latest film with Billie Holiday and a confidant preparing for an interview with Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan). Holiday then tells her story and how two particular things placed her in the crosshairs of FBI agent Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund).
The first is Holiday’s heroin addiction. The second is Holiday’s magnum opus song, “Strange Fruit,” which we all know describes a lynching in detail. Anslinger sends new agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to infuriate Holiday’s circle to achieve his mission. Anslinger hopes to find enough dirt on the singer to help his war on drugs. Naturally, Jimmy falls in love with Billie and wants to save Holiday from herself. But in addition to Holiday’s addictions, he has to compete with another suitor, Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), for Billie’s affections.
The first time I was introduced to Billie Holiday was in 1989, watching the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, where Diana Ross portrayed the singer. At the time, I was staying with my grandmother in Texas while my mom was overseas. I wanted to watch Disorderlies which was on the same VHS tape as the film Lady Sings the Blues. Since I couldn’t find the remote, I had to sit through Lady Sings the Blues to get to my movie. I still remember how cool Billy Dee Williams was as Louis McKay and how stunning Diana Ross was as Lady Day. So how does the new version of Holiday’s life compare?
Like the way Ross became a movie star from Lady Sings the Blues, I can see the same happening for Andra Day. Known for her inspirational anthem, “Rise Up,” Day is stellar as Billie Holiday. Day sings all of the songs on the film’s soundtrack and puts her own spin on them while briefly paying homage to Holiday’s raspiness. Day also taps in Holiday’s dark side as the singer tackles her demons. Day also possesses excellent chemistry with the cast, particularly Rob Morgan and Trevante Rhodes, who portray two of her lovers. Morgan and Rhodes both provide substantial supporting work and continue to add to their already growing resumes. Garrett Hedlund also turns in another excellent villain performance as Harry Anslinger.
Regretfully the rest of the supporting cast are only blimps in Holiday’s life as we race to the finish line. In the roles of actress Taullah Bankhead and Lester Young, Natasha Lyonne and Tyler James Williams aren’t given much to do. This is surprising as both figures were integral parts of Holiday’s life. Furthermore, Tone Bell and Erik LaRay Harvey show up in extended cameo’s as scrupulous managers in Billie’s career. Both men are only there to take advantage of Holiday and call her out of her name. Garrett Hedlund already nailed the villain e quite well. I felt that Bell and Harvey were merely due to their expertise in playing bad guys.
I will give credit to Suzan-Lori Park’s script, though. It provided information about the singer that I didn’t know. However, the warts and all approach she takes to the material may bother some viewers. Granted, director Lee Daniels is known for pushing the envelope, so it’s not surprising the film features nudity, drug use, and borderline explicit sexual situations. In terms of directing, Daniels offers impressive shots, and I particularly loved Jimmy and Billie’s montage during a romantic moment.
Despite an overlong running time, I recommend The United States vs. Billie Holiday solely off the strength of Andra Day.
Final Grade: C+
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is streaming on Hulu now.