Review: 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' isn't perfect but Andra Day is as the jazz legend

Brian Truitt

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” makes as strong a case for Holiday being a civil rights pioneer as its stunning star does for potential Oscar glory.

Director Lee Daniels’ straightforward historical musical drama (★★½ out of four; rated R; streaming Feb. 26 on Hulu) about the jazz legend hits familiar biopic beats and has some issues. Andra Day, however, is not one of them: In her first lead acting role, the Grammy-nominated R&B singer is astounding playing “Lady Day” in the last 12 years of her life, most of them spent at war with federal authorities over her signature song, “Strange Fruit.”

For Holiday, the infamous tune artfully depicting the lynching of Black Americans was a song about human rights. However, “the government forgets that sometimes,” Day’s character says to an interviewer. “They just want me to shut up and sing ‘All of Me.’ ”

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Billie Holiday (Andra Day) takes on the feds when they don't want her to sing "Strange Fruit" in the period drama "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

In 1947, Holiday gets requests for “Strange Fruit” at packed gigs, though her management has been warned by the feds: They don’t want Blacks in Jim Crow America galvanized by her musical telling of the horrors being perpetrated. Cops storm the stage if she even starts singing the song. But Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who heads up the effort to take her down, can only maybe charge her with inciting a riot when she sings it. Instead, he uses Holiday’s heroin habit against her.

Jimmy Fletcher (“Moonlight” standout Trevante Rhodes), a former soldier, is hired by Anslinger to infiltrate Holiday’s inner circle – after first presenting himself as a fan, Billie feels betrayed when he leads a raid that lands her in jail for a year. But they end up falling for each other, even as Anslinger wants Jimmy close to her over the next decade while Billie tours the country, struggles to stay clean and gets involved with a series of abusive, powerful men.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, “Billie Holiday” is mostly an episodic run through the popular jazz singer’s later career, with a lot of quick-moving sequences that make the film disjointed at times. There’s also a soapy vibe throughout, from a funeral for a dog to Holiday’s tumultuous love life, where it’s almost like Daniels’ TV show “Empire” but about 1940s jazz instead of modern-day hip hop.

Billie (Andra Day) falls for Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an undercover federal agent assigned to infiltrate the jazz singer's inner circle, in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

Daniels’ movie is best when he hangs back and doesn't cut scenes off just as they're getting interesting. The musical sequences are all pretty good, but especially when Day’s Billie – after getting sober – sings “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” at a packed Carnegie Hall, shifting from the high of a great performance to the emotional aftermath where it turns out she was high the whole time. Also key are the moments that connect Holiday’s past and the terrible legacy she sings about in “Strange Fruit”: a trippy, drug-fueled dream where Jimmy witnesses Billie’s rough childhood that segues into present-day when the singer witnesses a lynching herself. It's a highly charged emotional moment that sparks another fantasy sequence leading to Billie hauntingly singing the song, in full and uninterrupted. 

Back in the day, Diana Ross made her Hollywood debut playing Holliday in 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues” and earned an Academy Award best actress nomination. It could all happen again for Day: The talented vocalist already scored a Golden Globe nod for her raw, powerful and wide-ranging portrayal of a woman who fought various demons and foes off stage, yet dazzled when she got on a microphone. And it’s not an imitation, either. Day’s natural voice resembles Holiday’s soaring tones and because Daniels filmed her singing live, “Strange Fruit” and other old songs feel vibrant and resonant.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” reminds of an icon’s importance but also a continuing injustice, that even in 2021, America still hasn’t passed legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime. And history buffs will appreciate the thematic similarity to other recent films about the feds trying to undermine Martin Luther King Jr. (“MLK/FBI”) and Fred Hampton (“Judas and the Black Messiah”). Even with its imperfections, “Billie Holiday” tells a needed story and along the way introduces a bright new Hollywood star to watch.