Women’s History Month Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Year: 2021

Runtime: 130 minutes

Director: Lee Daniels

Writers: Suzan-Lori Parks, Johann Hari

Actors: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Tyler James Williams, Garrett Hedlund, Dusan Dukic

By Joan Amenn

Acknowledged with a much-deserved Golden Globes win, Andra Day is electrifying as her portrayal of the iconic Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”(2021). However, the film itself does not do justice to the complexity and pathos of the performer’s life. As a representation of a notable woman in history, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is an improvement on previous biopics and documentaries but there is so much about Lady Day that is oversimplified and glossed over.

Like many jazz legends, Billie Holiday rose from poverty and abuse to acclaim that did not reconcile with her lack of racial equality in their society. Lady Day, as she was nicknamed by her friend and collaborator Lester Young (Tyler James Williams) was kept from sleeping in hotels, using public restrooms, and eating in restaurants because she was African American and all of her fame did not change that. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” depicts the racial injustice of her arrests for drug usage as a means to keep her from singing “Strange Fruit”, as song about the Southern practice of lynching. It does not tell the story of how it was written by a Jewish American teacher who was a member of the Communist party. That origin coupled with the lyrics meant to illicit outrage at the treatment of African Americans alarmed certain federal authorities in the late 1930’s.  The film implies this is what led Billie Holiday to be persecuted but loses focus on the choices she made as a performer to portray her many affairs instead. This is a particularly egregious oversight since “Strange Fruit” was voted “Best Song of the Century” by TIME magazine in 1999 for helping to ignite the Civil Rights Movement. Surely, how it came to be brought to Lady Day and how she chose to sing it deserves more attention than how she interacted with various drug dealers and hangers-on.

Andra Day brings Holiday alive in her mesmerizing recreations of her singing style. Like Judy Garland, Holiday was most at home onstage. Also like Garland, she was a troubled woman who struggled to find a safe harbor with men who were only interested in exploiting her. But Holiday also wrote her own songs to reflect her life experiences which the film does not touch on. This is a sad omission since the lyrics of “Lover Man” and “God Bless the Child” would do more to reveal who she was as a person than all 130 minutes of this film put together. Perhaps Andra Day could grace us with a one woman show to enlarge on the great performance she started in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” The film leaves us with too little Lady and too many loose ends.

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