The United States vs Billie Holiday tells the story of Jazz legend, Billie Holiday who was well known for her vocals and battling with addiction for most of her career. Built off Johann Hari’s 2015 book ‘Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’, the biopic sees singer Andra Day as Billie Holiday grappling with being pursued by the FBI. In addition to her performance of Strange Fruit, which spoke of lynching in America, Holiday was further targeted for her drug misuse in an attempt to stop her from performing the song. According to the FBI, it was causing an uprising in Black people wanting to push for justice and change.
Set amongst the backdrop of post-prohibition and the early war against drugs in America - the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was set up in 1930 and sought to criminalise drugs of all kinds. Headed by Harry Ainslinger, portrayed by Garrett Hedlund in the film, Holiday is at the centre of the Bureau’s desire to racialise the American drug problem and use the Jazz singer as an example.
In a particularly poignant scene, Harry Ainslinger surrounded by a bunch of white senior FBI agents tells them, “Drugs and niggers are a contamination to our great American civilaisation.” The idea that Holiday was such a threat to the FBI is laughable. The biopic is filled with Andra Day’s remarkable acting as she seeks to embody Holiday’s spirit. From her crass nature and the more vulnerable moments, Day elevates the film in a way that oftentimes feel like the role was curated purposefully for her. The scenes where Day is alone are where she shines best, bleeding Holiday into her entire being.
The film touches upon Holiday’s relationships, both with her band members, and in a romantic context. Holiday’s sax player, Lester Young is portrayed by Tyler James Williams, in a supporting role filled with light comic relief, along with Miss Lawrence who depicts the Jazz singer’s stylist, Miss Freddy. But it’s in Holiday’s romantic relationships where we see a real sense of rawness within her character. We are introduced to Holiday’s first husband, Jimmy Monroe who was rumoured to be the one to get Holiday into opium. They had a volatile relationship which saw abuse on both sides and even saw Monroe turn on her to work together with the FBI in the late 1940s. Actors Andra Day and Erik LaRay Harvey, who plays Monroe, work well together on screen to break down the intimate relationship Holiday and Munroe had. Intimacy is intertwined so closely with abusive moments that oftentimes metaphorical whiplash is felt.
Real intimacy is found between Day’s character and Trevante Rhodes’ character. The Moonlight alumni plays the undercover Bureau of Narcotics agent, Jimmy Fletcher who is tasked with getting close to Holiday in order to help the FBI convict her for drug usage. The film gives the two a romantic storyline which helps audiences to take away from the harrowing reality that Holiday was facing - persecution from the state as well as battling her own personal demons. Whilst this romantic relationship has only been alluded to, and was never actually confirmed, it does well to break up the film and alleviate some of the intensity.
Director Lee Daniels desired to show "Black love that we just don’t see---rare, complicated, messy, real.” Relationships portrayed in the film truly are, nothing is untouched, everything is harsh and nothing good remains.
Another stand out scene in the film is when Rhodes’ character turns on those pulling his strings. Holiday has become deathly ill with drug misuse and even on her deathbed the FBI are still attempting to silence her voice under the guise of tackling the ‘war on drugs’. “You hate her. Despite all the shit in her life, she's made something of herself and you can’t take it…. She’s strong, beautiful and Black.”
At times the film felt difficult. Coming in at 130 minutes sometimes it felt like the pacing was off and that they were trying to cram too much into a space that was already far too long. Stellar musical performances from Day provided relief and allowed for Holiday’s voice to be heard through the mouth of Day in what can only be described as a masterclass in getting the musical biopic right.
The most harrowing part about Lee Daniels’ biopic isn’t Andra Day’s portrayal of one of the most iconic Jazz stars of the mid 1900s. It’s realising that Holiday’s act of resistance against the US government is still waiting to be actualised.