Forgive me for being a white writer about to pontificate on the career of Lee Daniels. However, it remains his most noteworthy quality that a black, queer director almost exclusively making films about the black experience, consistently produces such vanilla work. Not necessarily bad but simply plain, predictable and forgettable.
Such is the case with The United States vs. Billie Holiday. A film that is less a memoir of the blues icon’s battles with the law and substance addiction and more of a highlights reel of the events. The film flits so quickly through the victories and losses between Holiday and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics that it is impossible to latch onto the events in any kind of emotional way. With Daniels adopting a veritable melange of story structures and styles that only serve to disorient.
The film ostensibly takes place in 1957, where it is initially framed as Holiday, played by Andra Day, recounting her ordeal as part of an interview with the ever-colourful Leslie Jones. As a story device though, the interview is simply another way in which the film confuses itself. Coming in and out too sparsely to feel like an integral part of the story and denying us Day’s reflections as Holiday. We see the events, but despite the frame we have no way of knowing how she thinks or feels about the course her life has taken. And this is far from the only element of artistic flair which does nothing to serve the film.
Holiday’s career and run-ins with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics are peppered with archive footage. Yet the intended realism is swept aside by the larger-than-life performances and jazz-infused aesthetics. During a heroin binge Holiday flashes further back to her childhood and yet it is presented as completely straight, devoid of any drug-induced distortion. Individually we see these conventions utilised to great effect in other biopics but together here they never coalesce into a complete experience.
The cast acquit themselves amicably. Trevante Rhodes remains criminally under recognised for his effortless charm which serves him well as the duplicitous Jimmy Fletcher. The black federal agent, who led the investigation into Holiday in 1947, possesses Rhodes’ smooth yet earnest appeal. Lending believability to an otherwise chemistry-free affair with Holliday. Let it not be said though that their tepid romance is the fault of Day’s performance either. The relative newcomer injects Holiday with a pain that permeates through every moment. As though the sadness that fuelled her controversial hit ‘Strange Fruit’ has never truly left her. It’s a raw, brave performance that shows the vulnerability of Holiday without ever diminishing her stature.
No, if the faults of The United States vs. Billie Holiday are to be laid at anyone’s feet it is Daniels’. In choosing to rush through such pivotal events at a breakneck pace he deprives the film of a natural, human feel for the audience to connect to. It zips towards Fletcher’s arrest of Holliday without giving them a chance to build any sort of relationship that would give his betrayal real weight. The script pays lip service to the controversy behind ‘Strange Fruits’ but denies us real insight into Holliday’s motivations or feelings about the song. Nor indeed is her deteriorating health and death in 1959 treated with any sense of build-up, despite it being visible in her career throughout the fifties. The artistic quirks Daniels employs seem to mimic the style of a typical Hollywood biopic without giving time to the substance which makes biographies work. Holliday’s life is one rich in pain, courage and drama, yet Daniels seems only concerned with hitting the key points. Never the moments in between that paint an extraordinary person as human.
In my introduction I referred to Daniels’ previous work as vanilla. Well, to continue the ice cream metaphor The United States vs. Billie Holiday feels like a single cup of a hundred vibrant flavours. Each enjoyable in their own right but mashed together they cancel each other out into something edible, but hardly the most appealing thing on the menu.