United States vs. Billie Holiday

On Sky Cinema in the UK and Hulu globally.

Based in part on Johann Hari’s book, The United States vs. Billie Holiday looks at the final period of Holiday’s life and deals with the pursuit of her for narcotics offences by the US government that would dog her until her death. She is believed to have been targeted because of her song “Strange Fruit” about the continued lynching of black Americans in the southern US which was seen as “un-American” by J Edgar Hoover and bureau chief Harry Anslinger, although this was doubtless a cover for a broader racist agenda.

The story of Holiday and the political context of when it’s set are historically significant, however it’s a pity this film doesn’t do a much better job of telling it.

Let’s start with the positives, Andra Day as Holiday is already garnering both deserved praise and awards. Holiday is a complex and clearly troubled character with a difficult childhood and issues with addiction. Her situation is exacerbated by her own poor decisions particularly in her relationship choices, selecting a string of untrustworthy and violent men. She is also hugely talented and sees the importance of making a difference, all of which Day balances smartly, as well as truly shining with her performances of Holiday’s catalogue. She is also well supported by Trevante Rhodes as agent Jimmy Fletcher and the performances from those playing Holidays entourage.

However the problems are plenty, the film is a bit of a mess, narratively all over the place with Director Lee Daniels story telling choices not really paying off. The focus on a fictional relationship between Holiday and Fletcher seems odd, with so much of Holiday’s character or the political and racial situation of the time would have been a much more interesting story. None of those things ever feel that they are getting due consideration. Alongside that the pacing is problematic with the film felling longer than its just over 2 hour running time.

What this film has succeeded in doing is raising my interest in finding out more about Holiday’s story, just a pity it didn’t do a good enough job of telling it itself.

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