“God Bless the Child” was the first Billie Holiday song I ever heard. It was one of my grandmother’s favorites. She loved the lyrics because it was a lesson on how fake friends and money don’t mix. As I read the words years later, I realized that those words had to reflect the life of Holiday with love, loss and money problems – which director Lee Daniels explored in his new film “The United States versus Billie Holiday. “It’s a mixed effort at best, with a strong lead role, but one that ultimately fails to honor the legendary song (or the singer’s life) from which it gets the most emotional and spiritual clues.
Holiday’s famously haunting, sad, moving song “Strange Fruit” – a not-so-subtle metaphor for the horror of watching a lynching and the trauma behind it – is at the core of the narrative and emotional heart of the story. It serves as a connective tissue between Holiday and the FBI, as the government detested the song because it raised awareness of racism in America (in which the FBI was actively involved) and the myriad of lynchings of black Americans. As is common with common white American fears, American law enforcement took black’s defiance as a major threat and then worked overtime discrediting, imprisoning, and harassing those who dared to speak. Billie Holiday was furious with the system, and “Strange Fruit” brought her a heightened sense of purpose. Unfortunately, the song is the only thing that makes sense in this aimless mess of a movie that for the most part has style and no substance.
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The film uses an interview framing device that rarely returns to radio host Reginald Lord Divine (Leslie Jordan) in conversation with the singer Billie Holiday (Audra day) about her career. Accompanied by her and her assistant Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence), Holiday shares her experience of how “Strange Fruit” sparked the FBI so much; it got her in her crosshairs for most of her life. At one of her shows she meets the amorous fan Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), and Holiday is all too eager to include him in her inner circle. Miss Lawrence, her friend Roslyn (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and her band is not that trusting and tries to warn her not to befriend him, but her words fall on deaf ears. While she distracts herself by going upstairs with Junkie Joe (Melvin Gregg), the FBI has her under close surveillance.
Behind the scenes J. Edgar Hoover and Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) work hard to manipulate whatever they can to get Holiday off the stage and into jail. They use intimidation tactics by attending shows and using every available harassment strategy to convince them not to sing “Strange Fruit”. That doesn’t put them off, but their blatant and indiscreet drug use (heroin) is the perfect excuse the government needs to shut them down. Then Holiday discovers that the people around her are not what they seem.
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Using COINTELPRO techniques on vacation, the FBI puts the singer in the war on drugs by setting her on drug charges (which have a nice subplot and a topic about guilt, regret, and selling out your own people, but never getting interrogated enough) . Vacation wants to sing; It’s their form of activism. We see drugs, sex, and alcohol handle mechanisms for her past and present trauma, but Holiday never has the ability to respond to what she’s going through. The movie only seems to care about showing Holiday at its worst: a bisexual drug addict who is terribly lucky with men. There are so many takes of Holiday being high, getting high, drinking, having sex, and it just keeps turning into a revolving door with the same imagery and little depth to counter that. While it is meant to convey her trauma, the lynchings she has witnessed, all the pain she has endured as black women in racist, sexist, misogynistic, patriarchal white America, it’s mostly just dry and never as meaningful as it is should.
No wonder one of the biggest complaints in the movie is the inconsistent editing. The cuts are quick and appear random when set in the middle of conversation, with abrupt and awkward alternations between scenes that feel disconnected from the narrative. When Holiday is on stage, distracting montages take place that detract from Audra Day’s exemplary performance. The camera finally sits still when Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” in its entirety – but at this point there is little guarantee that your investment in history has not let up.
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The movie’s few saving graces are its fashion style and Audra Day’s performance. The costumes give Holiday a sense of panache and help the character stand out from the background. The amount of research and effort required to achieve her signature look is obvious and appreciated, but unfortunately, “Billie Holiday” needs more. It’s unfair for the actress’s shoulders to be strained to lift the plot into places she can’t reach. Audrey Day could have been an Oscar trailblazer with better material, but she’s limited to the TV-drama-like rules of the script. What does “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” want to say? That J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI are a piece of shit? Sure, but that’s how it is in the nose. It could speak to moral awakening – for example, when white characters decide to break away from white supremacy and the audience can applaud themselves for “learning” from the character (ala)Green book”). No, the film is not going there either. What about the complexity of “Strange Fruit” and why is it so polarizing for the country? Sorry, Daniels’ film doesn’t try to unwrap that either. Every opportunity for nuance is missed and sacrificed in the name of a spectacle. Even one of the film’s most emotionally harrowing sequences – one that tries to reckon with lynching – burns at first and then swings away in favor of distracting, unnecessary dream sequences and stylish fever nightmares.
What remains is the pain, struggle, abuse, and heartbreak of Billie Holiday who feel all too familiar and sometimes even a little gaudy. overly concerned about patina and sheen and not the radical idea of a defiant scream against the inhumanity of racism and the bravery behind it. Unfortunately, Daniel’s film does not symbolically or emotionally do justice to Holiday’s suffering or the evocative and painful trauma of blood on the leaves. [C-]