Andra Day croons, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit…” That familiar raspiness is something to marvel at coming from R&B singer Andra Day (wearing large Magnolias no less) in her first major film role as Billie Holiday. The monumental ‘Strange Fruit’ becomes the subject of yet another biopic in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. First recorded by Holiday in 1939, the song remains a powerful protest against antilynching. Black bodies hanging from trees representing the dark fruit on the Southern branches. It’s easy to assume by the film title that this project would focus on Holiday’s court trial of the same name and the backlash she would receive by continuously singing ‘Strange Fruit’. While the latter is true, the rest of the biopic is, tragically, a muddled mess.
Directed by Lee Daniels and written by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, The United States vs. Billie Holiday could have been so much more. Daniels, best known for Precious and The Butler, attempts to shed light on the issues of race that still ring true today. The film plays out like a stage show in a series of vignettes that focus on key moments in Holiday’s life. There are a lot of characters that come and go throughout, and while some are more notable, the film never takes the time to flesh any of them out.
It’s hard not to compare this film to Diana Ross’ turn as Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. Both Andra Day and Ross refusing to lip-sync Holiday’s well-known hits. Though Lady Sings the Blues was deemed a failure as both a biography and film, there’s no denying the launch of Ross into superstardom. The United States vs. Billie Holiday wants to fix said indignities and somehow falls into the same trap.
The film begins with Holiday being interviewed by larger-than-life journalist Reginald Lord Devine played by Leslie Jordan. He naturally begins asking her about her life and ‘Strange Fruit’ – cue: flashback after flashback. This method of storytelling has been seen plenty of times before, but in this case the format becomes confusing for those new to Billie Holiday. It quickly becomes hard to pinpoint what years certain events took place.
Besides the song, the film also focuses on the constant hounding of Federal Bureau of Narcotics Chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund). He’s relentless in his pursuit to stop her from singing ‘Strange Fruit’. The result is her arrest for possession, imprisonment, and the unfortunate loss of her cabaret performer’s license (the ability to sing at Clubs that serve alcohol). Then there are fragments of lovers like Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), whose appearance leaves more questions than answers. Her husband Louis McKay’s (Rob Morgan) deduced to a handful of random scenes. Instead, the romantic focus is that of the real-life rumored romance with F.B.I. agent Jimmy Fletcher, excellently played by Trevante Rhodes. He almost gets too much exposition, considering most of his relationship with Holiday is that of speculation. These are not even half of the character appearances, it’s worth mentioning Tyler James Williams as a friend and saxophonist Lester Young. Though his role is deduced to a background player.
It’s almost comical that interviewer Reginald Lord Devine frames the entirety of Holiday’s complex past, one almost forgets how the whole thing started when he pops back in towards the last act. With dialogue that’s too on the nose, it’s hard to believe Lady Day would be that self-aware for the time period of the late 50s. Reginald goes on to ask her, “Well, why don’t you stop singing the damn song?” To no response from Holiday, just tears. A moment that could have been far more powerful, but instead comes off as unfaithful to Holiday’s true legacy.
The most beautiful sequences are when Andra Day takes the stage. She stares deep into the camera as her words are sung directly to the audience viewing from the comfort of home. It’s haunting and soul-piercing all at once. Daniels knows when to let Holiday shine in her most subtle musings. However, he works in contradiction with himself by wanting to show the darkest bits of her life. He, ultimately, misses the mark on how her joyful moments are a protest in itself. There are little to no happy occurrences, the film chooses to play out in a series of injustices and tragedy. In an award year that includes One Night in Miami and Judas and the Black Messiah that tackle similar themes, this film comes just short of achieving similar heights. If only Daniels and Parks were able to capture the misunderstandings of Holiday and historical accuracy. Day’s award-worthy performance, nonetheless, manages to make fragments memorable. Her magnetism is hard to shake long after the credits roll.