"Her voice would not be silenced." This is The United States vs. Billie Holiday. This biographical drama film directed by Lee Daniels, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. The legendary Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, spent much of her career being adored by fans across the globe. Beginning in the 1940’s in New York City, the federal government targeted Holiday in a growing effort to escalate and racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial and heart-wrenching ballad, Strange Fruit.
In September 2019, it was announced that a Billie Holiday biopic was in development based on Hari's 2015 book with Lee as director. By early October, Andra Day was cast in the title role with Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Tyler James Williams, Erik LaRay Harvey and Dana Gourrier. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in mid December. Filming took place in Montreal, Québec, Canada. The film was originally scheduled for a February 12, 2021 release date. But in November 2020, it was moved two weeks to February 26.
The film. stars Day, Rhodes, Lyonne, Hedlund, Morgan, Williams, Harvey and Gourrier. The film is a thought-provoking and beautifully acted one thanks to the performances given by the talent cast, especially a truly mesmerizing performance from Day.
While Daniels directs individually moving scenes in the film, he fails as a whole to create an integral, coherent or convincing drama. Don't think of it as a Best Picture wannabe, think of it as a socially-conscious picture book-something with a Caldecott medal on its cover to place on Barnes & Noble endcaps during Black History Month. Not the most subtle of movies overall, but does offer some valid insights into the evolution of modern race relations in America. A formidably cast epic that eclipses over a decade of a woman's life in a landsape of evolving racism, Daniels lets his material speak for itself, while history calls the shots. Though the film's tidy sentiments can be cloying, it's hard to remain unmoved-and unimpressed by the stubbornly authentic performance by Day, which will likely be remembered at Oscar time. There are missed opportunities and weak moments in the script to be sure, but not enough to discount it, and the stellar acting by Day is what will make this movie memorable long term. It's a shame that the excellent central storyline gets so obstructed and mucked up by all the noise, spectacle, and pageantry. Daniels' lack of self-awareness actually works in his favour here, letting the director's emotions run and resulting in a work that has fire in its belly beneath the shiny surface. This is a tough line to walk, being both upfront with your message and managing subtle critiques, but luckily for viewers Daniels manages to find the right balance and deliver a winning movie.
Simon says The United States vs. Billie Holiday receives:
Also, see my review for The Butler.