• Film ID:
  • 20785
  • Availability:
  • DVD Available from Shop
  • Film cert:
  • Running time:
  • DVD=126 min.
  • Nationality(ies):
  • America.
  • Primary Language(s):
  • English.
THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY (2021)
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Review

Follows Holiday during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair.
Lady Day deserves much better than this muddled, often tedious and substantially apocryphal "biopic" from Lee Daniels. In this telling of Billie Holiday's life the song Strange Fruit becomes central to the narrative, with government forces determined to stop her singing the mournful lament, afraid that it will ignite a civil rights movement. At one point she's even dragged from the stage after singing just the first few lines. The problem with all of this is it never happened. Federal Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger apparently claimed in letters that he "asked" holiday not to sing the song, but - even if that's true - that's about as far as it went. Holiday was never dragged off stage for singing the song; in fact, she sang the song in the very concert in which the film depicts this as happening. In any case, the civil rights movement was already a growing force long before Strange Fruit became a popular protest song. As for Billie, she was never especially political and was initially ambivalent about performing Strange Fruit. She was convinced more by the way it would be dramatically staged as a final number than by any notions about the political clout of the lyrics. So to make the song central to her life and have Billie so passionate about performing it any cost is in itself dishonest. But then so much of Daniels' film, from the weird Quentin Crisp-like Reginald Lord Divine character who interviews Billie (he never existed) to the romantic affair with FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher, for which there is zero evidence. At best the film offers brief glimpses into the reality of Billie's life, but they're so swamped with apocrypha that you'll have trouble identifying them. Which makes this a pretty messed up biopic, and an extremely half-assed tribute to the great singer. The only saving grace in all of this is Andra Day, who manages to look and sound like Billie for the most part. But even here there are caveats. Day's performances of Holiday's songs are more impressive as vocal impressions than they are for evoking the emotion and pathos that made Billie legendary. And, sad to say, her rendition of Strange Fruit is oddly stilted, almost bland. Not to mention severely truncated. Never mind that this is the song the entire film revolves around. Strange, indeed.

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