Saturday, February 20, 2021

Movie with Abe: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Directed by Lee Daniels
Released February 26, 2021 (Hulu)

Artists are typically remembered most for the works they create, recognized by future generations for their notable contributions to culture that can be concretely identified. The defining experiences they had may be known only to the more active and interested consumers since a life cannot be captured by one song or painting. Those with particularly complicated and compelling backgrounds make great subjects for biographies since, especially if they died untimely deaths, they may have a great deal more to share with the world than what is most commonly cited. This film tackles the very worthwhile topic of Billie Holiday with an unspectacularly standard approach.

Billie Holiday (Andra Day) is an acclaimed singer in the 1940s, delighting crowds with “All of Me” and other tunes from her repertoire. Her performances of another song, “Strange Fruit,” attract the attention of the FBI, endorsed by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who do not want her singing about lynchings and target her drug use as a way of discrediting and ultimately imprisoning her. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the agent sent in to get close to her, comes to question his role in the suppression of a powerful Black voice as he gets to know this woman who has seen much in her years and doesn’t want to be told what she can and can’t communicate through art.

This film’s title explains its angle, which is to frame Holiday’s life as a constant struggle between her right to exist and share her music and the forces hellbent on censoring her so that they can pretend that white supremacy and deadly racism do not exist in America. While much of that narrative sadly remains true in current times, Holiday witnessing the brutality of lynchings in an era when such abhorrent behavior wasn’t even condemned explains its particular resonance to her. Holiday is also well aware that singing about it won’t make it stop or even create major change, but being silenced and told to behave does not sit right with her in any way.

Day delivers an enormously impressive performance in her first major film role, imbuing Holiday with a deep passion interwoven with anguish and conflict. She is paired well with Rhodes and a cast that includes Tyler James Williams and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as members of her touring ensemble. There are moving moments in the film, particularly when Holiday performs on stage, that stand out from a typical biopic about a protagonist made to seem paranoid by the people who are very much surveilling her every move. Its confrontation scenes feel constructed for dramatic purposes, detracting by pulling focus from an icon whose legacy deserves to be honored in its own right.


No comments: