Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Suzan-Lori Parks
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Miss Lawrence, Garrett Hedlund, Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Genres: Biography, Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Release Date: 2/26/21 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2h 10min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 52%
Where to Watch: Hulu
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Actress; Possible–Costume Design; Long-Shot–Picture, Director

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is probably the last awards season contender to be released in this season, which has been much longer than usual. I watched it on the day of its release on Hulu; even though the reviews were poor, critics and viewers alike praised singer/songwriter Andra Day’s debut acting performance. It turns out that this is actually one of the worst films of the year, with one of the best performances of the year. But, is it worth it to watch such a poorly-made film that surrounds a terrific performance? Perhaps, especially if Day ends up getting nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars (which seems very likely). 

This film is a serious step down for director Lee Daniels, who, like Ron Howard, is an acclaimed and award-nominated filmmaker whose latest work is so bad that it makes me wonder what could have happened to make them fail so miserably. Like Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, Daniels’ Billie Holiday can’t live up to one of its main performances, although Day is even better here than Glenn Close is in Elegy. As tempting as it is to say Daniels is responsible for his directing of Day’s debut acting, I’d say it’s all her, and I’m sure she must’ve had an amazing acting coach — or perhaps she’s just a natural fit for this role. She fully embodies the voice, physicality, and emotional range of the famed singer, who struggled with drug addiction. I just wish the rest of the film could live up to her magnificence and commitment to the role, and her performance is so good that it seems out of place with the rest of the movie. 

I’m not sure where to begin in regards to this film’s atrocities. It’s definitely too long; at one point, I paused, and couldn’t believe that I was only halfway through the movie. I was determined to finish it though, because I wanted to see the entirety of Day’s performance. I’m glad I did, but not I’m not glad I was forced to watch this mess of a movie. You’d think that screenplay written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks would be much better and more interesting. The title of the film, and its trailer, imply that it will be concise and focus on Holiday’s dealings with the government, who aimed at sending her to jail due to her song about lynching (“Strange Fruit”). While this is in the movie, there’s so much else that happens, and the script never decides what it wants to be about I often prefer biopics that are concise and take place over a shorter period of time, in the vein of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

I never saw the Diana Ross-starring Holiday biopic, or the Audra McDonald-starring Broadway musical, so I can’t say for sure how this film compares to those two (and other previous iterations of Holiday’s life). But, it seems likely that this is probably the worst of the bunch, and doesn’t treat Holiday’s story with the care and respect it deserves. Also, despite some solid casting, including Da’Vine Joy Randolph (a breakout in Dolemite Is My Name) and the always-reliable Natasha Lyonne, the supporting cast is also treated carelessly. I never understood who these people were or why they did what they did; they’re all so underdeveloped that they were almost not present in the movie. Perhaps the most disappointing here is Lyonne, who is meant to be portraying Holiday’s female lover — the singer was supposedly bisexual — but, aside from some shameless flirting and innuendo, we don’t learn any more about their relationship. Holiday’s queerness was practically brushed aside, like biopics in years past have done. 

Even Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, as Holiday’s temporary lover (and FBI agent) Jimmy, feels underused, and I never understood his motivations for doing certain things. Then, there’s Garrett Hedlund as the head of the FBI team who’s hell-bent on jailing Holiday simply because he believes “Strange Fruit” will cause all sorts of chaos. He’s supposed to be a sort of mustachio-twirling villain but, like the rest of the characters, there’s no character development or character, period, here. There’s also Leslie Jordan as the flamboyant radio announcer (??) whose interview serves as the jumping-off point for the story. We revisit this scene throughout the movie, but with the timeline-jumping, it’s difficult to know when everything (or anything) takes place. 

It’s disappointing that a movie featuring such important, relevant material — drug use, lynching, among others — can be so, well, disappointingly bad. I certainly hope Lee Daniels redeems himself after this atrocity, and that Andra Day is able to find another script and filmmaker worthy of her talent; however, she has said that this role took so much out of her that she may never act again. (Fingers crossed that she’s lying!). Regardless, we knew she could sing, but had no idea she also had this immense acting potential.