The 400-Word Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday
By Sean Collier
February 26, 2021
So what, exactly, is “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” supposed to be?
I don’t mean to ask what it’s meant to be about; that’s a reductive and often silly question. Not every film is neatly about this aphorism or that theme. Rather, what does this film aim to be? A biopic? A historic drama? A romance, a musical, a piece of social commentary?
I’m sure that director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks would tell you “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is all of these things, a genre-defiant true story that provides a window on a titanic figure in American culture. Unfortunately, it is not all things at once; it is so focused on trying to encompass every mode and genre that it manages to fulfill none of its disparate ambitions.
Have you ever seen a golden-age cinema spectacular that tries to sandwich romance, adventure, set pieces, drama and slapstick into the same picture? The kind of a movie with a trailer featuring a boisterous announcer shouting, “There’s something for everyone!” Well, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is that, but with awards bait. Every type of movie that can launch an awards push is represented.
It’s a “For Your Consideration” campaign in want of a movie.
The singer/songwriter Andra Day, making her first on-screen appearance, is the clear highlight of the film. While a few moments sink into impersonation, her Billie Holiday is fierce, defiant and captivating. Any attempt to represent Holiday in film would have to be dynamic (and expertly sung), and Day rises to the challenge.
Her costars, including “Moonlight” standout Trevante Rhodes as the FBI agent assigned to tail Holiday, comport themselves well enough. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is earnestly performed; unfortunately, it is mechanically written, crafted in the image of an acclaimed movie without ever becoming one.
I suspect there were simply too many cooks in the kitchen. Parks’ script is a mess, even though she’s a skilled writer; she won a Pulitzer for her play “Topdog/Underdog.” Perhaps the film’s six producers meddled too much, in pursuit of filling boxes on the prestige-pic checklist; perhaps converting a nonfiction book about the war on drugs to a backdoor Holiday biopic was too tall an order. It’s hard to define why a well-proportioned movie crumbles; suffice to say that this one never fully gets to its feet in the first place.
My Rating: 4/10
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is streaming on Hulu.