“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” features a superb acting ensemble, an award-winning director, an outstanding production design team and a fascinating, real-life story.
So much of this movie is great, but these great elements don’t easily mix together, making the film into a noble-but-unfocused effort.
As you might guess from the title, the film focuses on the legendary jazz and blues singer, Billie Holiday (Andra Day). Her song “Strange Fruit” has aroused the ire of law enforcement, and so she is targeted by the federal government.
An undercover officer (Trevante Rhodes) is sent in to gather information, which will ultimately lead to her arrest on narcotics charges.
The real-life twist is that the undercover officer falls in love with his target, particularly as he starts to question his role in silencing one of the most notable black voices in the 1940s and 50s.
This is the fourth recent film to expose how the government was actively engaged in opposing civil rights, and the second film in a row to question the Black men who were complicit in the effort.
I do think Rhodes is pretty good in his conflicted traitor role, but it’s Day who really pops off the screen here. This is her first major role and she is astonishing. Not only does she turn in a fiery, Oscar-worthy acting performance, but she stuns in the movie’s musical moments.
Thanks to Day’s smoky vocal performance and the set design that intricately details the cabaret clubs of the era, the film transports you back to a golden era of jazz music. The production design team is just as good at plopping all of the characters into seedy motels where they can all shoot up.
Kudos for their superb work here.
The problems come in the screenplay and the unfocused direction. This is a movie that is a loving musical tribute, as well as a critique of law enforcement, as well as a look at how drug abuse can destroy even the brightest of lives.
There are also several side moments, such as a powerful scene where Day isn’t allowed to ride the elevator with her White lover, Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne). It should have been a powerful moment, but the filmmakers quickly forget about it so that they can move on to their next impulse.
It’s no secret that editing is difficult, but it’s essential in order to bring focus to a film. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” should have been a bullseye rifle shot, but its meandering focus makes it into a scattered buckshot blast that frequently misses the mark.
It still earns points for the outstanding acting, music and design. It’s just a shame that such an intriguing musical icon features in such a messy movie.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is currently streaming on Hulu.
Movie reviews by Sean McBride, “The Movie Guy,” are published each week by Port Arthur Newsmedia and seen weekly on KFDM and Fox4. Sean welcomes your comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.