You can count on filmmaker Lee Daniels to strip his characters bare, literally and figuratively, to expose their excesses and vulnerabilities. Plunging characters into worlds of rough sex, violence, drugs, and suffering, his films can pile on cinematic excesses of their own — occasionally to the point of near-absurdity, as in the cases of The Paperboy and Shadowboxer.
On the other hand, Oscar-winners Precious and Monster’s Ball (the latter of which Daniels produced, and Marc Forster directed) both achieved stunning urgency in their depictions of pain and desperation. The United States vs. Billie Holiday (★★☆☆☆) aims for stunning but mostly comes up short in its impressionistic account of jazz legend Holiday’s years-long war against the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
The now-defunct agency, led by Commissioner Harry Ainslinger, in truth, waged a war against Holiday, portrayed with grit and compassion by “Rise Up” singer Andra Day. Troubled Holiday, dignified though self-destructive, is hounded through the ’40s and ’50s by Ainslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who targets the star as a prominent member of several communities he detests: drug users, jazz musicians, and Black people. He dispatches a Black agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes), to seduce his way into Holiday’s circle and help deliver the known heroin user to the law.
Fletcher and Holiday generate romantic sparks, but the agent’s penchant for deceit and commitment to his double-life should ignite more intrigue than the faint buzz conveyed by Rhodes’ performance. And Hedlund’s Ainslinger registers as a mere poster-boy for racist villainy without much dimension. Judas and the Black Messiah, the film season’s other high-profile biopic of an American icon betrayed by a brother informant, discharges its duplicity with a sharper sting.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday loses focus amidst the stream of betrayals, abusive husbands and boyfriends, drug trips, montages, musical numbers, and historical and racial commentary. Natasha Lyonne saunters through as stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead, Holiday’s good friend and maybe lover. The costumes are sumptuous, the cinematography perpetually sepia and smoky. One strange drug trip dissolves into a flashback to Holiday’s childhood inside a brothel. Another moment, possibly a trip, finds her stumbling onto the aftermath of a lynching, the victim still swinging from a tree over his weeping family and a burning cross left in the yard.
Adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks from Chasing the Scream, journalist Johann Hari’s non-fiction exposé on the government’s war on drugs, the film frames its story around performances of Holiday’s landmark 1939 anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” Ainslinger and the Feds don’t want her singing about “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze,” claiming that the song’s lyrics could incite riots.
Daniels teases bits of the tune before finally presenting it in its full, arresting glory. A performance of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” posited as a saucy f.u. to Holiday’s critics after she’s released from a prison stint, offers another musical highlight. Still, too few of the jazz numbers put real oomph behind Holiday’s swing. Leading lady Day sounds enough like Lady Day, but generally only approximates the character and emotion of Holiday’s one-of-a-kind voice. The languid arrangements lag, and the sex and violence only say so much.
In scene after scene, friends and lovers explain Holiday to whomever needs to understand her better, but the film, for all it manages to explain and include, provides pieces of the puzzle without putting it all together.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available on Hulu starting Friday, Feb. 26. Visit www.hulu.com.
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