Review: Hulu’s ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

There are a lot of things not to like about The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

So far, I’ve read that the movie is not close enough to reality; that it’s too real. That director Lee Daniels does great things for Black Americans with his focus on “Strange Fruit”; that he misrepresents Black people in the film. That star Andra Day is just like Billie Holiday, and that she’s not close enough.

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The un-shocking inability for the film’s viewers to come to a consensus about just what exactly it did shows how much damage has been done to the truth of who Billie Holiday was; everyone has a different idea of her and she undeniably means different things to different people.

It is this quality that the film, in actuality, reproduces perfectly. Andra Day’s Billie Holiday is a fighter, a victim, a criminal, and a revolutionary all at once. She is a “complicated” person, beloved by many and hated by others, but there is no question to anyone involved that she is special and that she is important. There’s something unique about her, and it’s not just that signature voice.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday tells a slice of Lady Day’s story, framed through her evocative song “Strange Fruit” and the American government’s years-long battle to get her to stop singing it – a battle that involved cheating, spying, and other government-sanctioned actions under the ruse of a War on Drugs. The film is based on Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream, which chronicles the War on Drugs and the lives that it wrecks while not actually solving any issues related to drug use in America. 

Though the book and the movie approach the War on Drugs from the same perspective, the film’s focus on lynching is its own. Lady Day’s story is bookended by information about anti-lynching laws in America, lending urgency to her message and shame to those why try to quiet her.

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In the end, regardless of the film’s alignment with truth, it is a successful piece of art because it invokes emotion and tells a story that is human and that is true, though it shouldn’t be. Daniels uses real images, facts, and footage that prevent the audience from using the film as an escape. Viewers are required to contend with the fates of, say, Billie Holiday versus Harry Anslinger (the man who had her followed, framed, and arrested for years, among other crimes against human rights). And they get the pleasure of seeing Billie Holiday as she was and as she was imagined to be.

The film slips between these real images and its own, as well as from color into black and white, and sometimes from regular speed into that quick-running visual movement that we now associate with old movies. These choices ground the film in its time period, though some dialogue sounds straight from 2021 (example: Billie stating that only certain types of relationships make her feel “safe” to love, a conceptualization that feels too modern for the era). 

Daniels also makes the choice to show explicit sex and drug usage. Though these elements are sometimes used for their shock value, in this film they belong: Billie’s relation to sex and to drugs both evolve over the course of the movie, meaning that these scenes convey important character information. It also forces the audience to consider how common explicit physical violence is in many films, while the kinds of violence exhibited here – through sex and drugs – are far less common on-screen, though far more common in real life.

Andra Day gives a fascinating, heartbreaking performance, and Billie’s personality and her music are ultimately the stars of this story. Whatever criticism this film may earn, to watch it is to add a newfound, or newly nuanced, layer of appreciation for Billie Holiday and her place in history – even today – to your knowledge.

The Bottom Line

The United States vs. Billie Holiday invokes awe of this larger-than-life woman and rage at the systems that forced that life to end too soon… systems that still exist today. This story, and Andra Day’s performance, are well worth your time.

Score:    

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