Review: Andra Day outshines script in Hulu’s ‘United States vs. Billie Holiday’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

Billie Holiday lived a tortured life bearing “Strange Fruit” for a nation to chew on.

Her journey is explored in the new Hulu biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

Based on Johann Hari’s book “Chasing the Scream” adapted by playwright turned screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks, the film follows Holiday’s groundbreaking and heartbreaking career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics in a sting operation to stop her from singing protest anthems about Southern lynchings.

Andra Day, who performed at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors, follows the Lady Gaga (“A Star is Born”) path in a revelatory acting debut after Grammy-nominated songs (“Rise Up”). She nails Holiday’s vocals at the Cafe Society nightclub singing “All of Me,” “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit,” TIME magazine’s Song of the Century.

This Sunday, she is up for two Golden Globes: Best Original Song (“Tigress & Tweed”) and Best Actress (Comedy/Musical) in a field of 10 nominees. The real test will be if she gets an Oscar nod in a crowded field of five nominees. It’s not impossible as the role earned an Oscar nomination for Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972).

Her supporting cast boasts familiar faces: Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”) plays her lover and undercover FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher; Natasha Lyonne (“Russian Doll”) makes a too-brief appearance as her lover Tallulah Bankhead; and Garrett Hedlund (“Mudbound”) is antagonist Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Like Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” (2016), the film explores the War on Drugs as government agents claim, “Jazz music is the devil’s work, a musical starting gun for the Civil Rights Movement.” Realizing “you can’t arrest a woman for singing a song,” they instead target her heroin addiction. “I need help, not jail time,” Holiday says.

Director Lee Daniels oscillates between raw (“Precious”) and heavy handed (“The Butler”), showing directorial flourishes like intercutting prison brutality with FBI applause. His best moments come on stage, shooting Day from behind in silhouette against the bright lights, silencing the sound for romantic, slow-motion close-ups.

The problem is we’ve seen better versions of the same themes this year: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was a stronger showbiz commentary; “MLK/FBI” was a more chilling look at government spying; “Judas and the Black Messiah” was a more riveting tragedy of betrayal; and “One Night in Miami” better articulated the need for protest songs.

The plot is scattershot, playing like a collection of scenes rather than a forward-moving narrative. It also falls victim to a lazy framing device of Holiday being interviewed by Reginald Lord Devine in 1957 (“What’s it like to be a colored woman?” “Would you ask Doris Day that question?”), suggesting the rest of the film is a series of flashbacks.

These gratuitous memories are admittedly hard to watch, from abusive relationships to seedy heroin trips to childhood brothel scars. By the time we reach the strung-out, coughing finale, we’re worn down by the joyless, depressing, exhausting experience.

At least it all services a powerful bookend, opening with a horrific lynching photo to remind us that the Senate denied a bill to ban lynching in 1937, then closing by saying the Senate still hasn’t passed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act of 2019.

Each time the film beats the anti-lynching drum, we’re reminded why it’s a worthwhile endeavor, introducing a new generation to the lyrics of “Strange Fruit.” Indeed, Holiday gets the last laugh, telling Anslinger, “Your grandkids will be singing ‘Strange Fruit.'”

In one of the final scenes, Daniels even admits this dark film won’t be for everyone:

“What do critics think about my last record?”

“I thought you didn’t care about the critics.”

“I don’t. I just want folks to like it, you know.”

“The critics don’t like it.”

“Did you like it?”

“Yes.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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