The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
Words by Kaylee-Rose Payne
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
The United States Vs Billie Holiday was released on Hulu earlier this month and we're still obsessed with Andra Days incredible performance as Billie Holiday. Costume designer Paolo Nieddu delved into the Prada archives to recreate many of Holiday's signature looks. However, directed by Lee Daniels, the overall film is muddled and left us feeling more confused than empowered by one of the most influential jazz singers of all time.
When I say I love Andra Day, I actually mean I am obsessed and wished that I possessed every talent (which is many) that woman has. So, it’s pretty obvious that I was very excited to watch Day’s performance as Billie Holliday in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday that was released on Hulu earlier this month. Directed by Lee Daniels, who has produced and directed some pretty good hard-hitting films over the years, that gave us all high hopes for this Billie Holiday biopic. However, Andra Day’s insane performance as well as the soundtrack and costume design are probably the only reasons why I proceeded to watch this scrambled two-hour and something long film that didn’t portray Billie Holiday as she should’ve been.
Holiday, born as Eleanora Fagan, is without a doubt one of the best and influential jazz singers of all time who looked like bloody royalty on stage with her signature gardenia in her hair, red lipstick and the most incredible gowns. However, behind all the glamour, she’s probably one of the most controversial jazz artists of all time who suffered with a heroin addiction and toxic relationships whilst the government were actively seeking ways to silence her due to the famous song “Strange Fruit”. Seen as an act of courage, the song “Strange Fruit” tells the story of the lynching’s of African Americans in the South which was seen as a retaliation against the government due to the 1937 bill to ban the lynching’s didn’t pass. “Strange Fruit” is a song on human rights and politics yet ‘provoked people in the wrong way’ which lead to the song being banned and government finding ways to arrest her. It felt a bit weird that Daniels started the film from this point of her life of federal agents trying to take her down rather than the beginning of her successful and empowering career during a time of racism and prejudice.
The film starts as handsome ‘soldier boy’ but actually undercover federal agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), is ordered to infiltrate into Holiday’s circle of friends whilst trying to collect evidence of her drug abuse. Fletcher is proud of his position within the government as he’s only one of the few black federal agents in New York at the time, but it’s pretty clear that he was only given this assignment due to the colour of his skin. Despite him acknowledging that Billie was using her voice as a tool against racism, his loyalty to his job was a far greater priority to him as he later arrests her when he spots heroin in her apartment. Billie Holiday is then sentenced to a ‘year and one day’ in prison which just seemed a bit like a joke on Holiday that the government were playing. If we were taking The United States vs. Billie Holiday literally this would be a point to The United States and zero to Billie.
But for some reason once Billie Holiday is free, she befriends Fletcher and they then start a friendship then romance together whilst Billie’s on tour. I was baffled how they even became friends let alone start a sexual relationship and shooting heroin together as the film just jumped from her hating him to her having sex with him. She then left him for her crap abusive boyfriend, Joe Guy (Melvin Gregg), who then started putting opium in her pockets to set her up so the police could arrest her. The film also didn’t explain how this alliance between Joe and the government started. It felt so disappointing that a film which could’ve been so empowering was just so confusing and I had to keep skipping back bits to try and gain some understanding, but I was still so baffled.
Because of how muddled the film was, I felt that the spectators weren’t able to gain a great or correct opinion of Billie Holiday as she was portrayed to just be a heroin addict, a victim and quite frankly a mess rather than the empowering, political figure she was. For instance, the film didn’t even play “Strange Fruit” the whole way through as it focused on the government bringing her down rather than a focus on her and the importance of that song. Also, at the end of the film you watch Billie Holiday die whilst handcuffed to a hospital bed whilst the white man who was in charge of the whole operation was given presidential recognition from JFK. So, I just ended up feeling sorry for Billie Holiday rather than empowered which is how I should’ve felt!
Yet, through Daniels’s chaotic adaptation, the most incredible acting is performed by Andra Day who’s probably got back pains from carrying the whole film. Her singing replicates Holiday’s performances perfectly, even tilting her head back like Holiday’s signature moves and it’s clear that Day had done such in depth research which truly paid off…I am obsessed over it! Costume designer Paolo Nieddu, who is known for his work from Sex and the City, honoured Holiday’s most memorable looks by delving into the Prada archives as well as collaboratively working alongside Prada to reinterpret the singer’s seriously phenomenal wardrobe. In the films behind-the-scenes, Nieddu describes the costume design outcome as “It was like Billie's spirit was alive.”
Overall, if you want to watch the film to gain a true understanding of how empowering, influential and politically important Billie Holiday was then I would honestly advise to watch a documentary or read the co-authored autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. The film's focus was just bringing Holiday down and a quote that stuck with me in the film which was said by one of her entourage that the singer “looks like a million bucks but she feels like nothing” which just shows how low she was portrayed. Yet- also can be a metaphor for the film, as prior to watching it, the biopic had every quality to honour the legacy of Billie Holiday and looked like it would’ve been so impactful but ended up feeling like it dragged with just Andra Day holding it all together by a thread. All in all, disappointing and didn’t lead up to expectations.