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'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' Review With Casey

Courtesy of 'The United States vs. Billie Holliday'

Biopic films are an especially challenging mountain to climb. They’re done a lot, so they can get formulaic; and some go too far to sanitize their subject (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018) or vilify them (Mommie Dearest, 1981). The United States vs. Billie Holiday miraculously doesn’t fall into any of these metaphorical ravines. 

Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, 2009), this film is adapted from the 2015 non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs written by British journalist Johann Hari. The book gives a large overview of the U.S. government’s criminalization of drug use throughout the 20th century up to today profiling early public figures of this war which include jazz singer Billie Holiday. 


So this film is not just an exploration of the triumphs and tragedies of the famous singer’s life. It also shows how Billie Holiday was relentlessly targeted by the U.S. Federal Department of Narcotics to be arrested and jailed for her sporadic addiction to heroin in the 1940s and 50s. Getting arrested or thrown in jail was the ultimate goal for the federal U.S. government to keep Billie Holiday from publicly singing the infamous song Strange Fruit which gives an agonized and haunting portrait of a lynching (with dangerously anti-racist effects on its listeners). 


Combining so much information about Billie Holiday’s stormy personal life with the sneaky work of federal agents, and including a number of her songs performed in their entirety, makes the film very full. But because of its patient use of jazz songs, and the emotional timing of its dialogue, it rarely feels rushed or overstuffed in its 2 hour and 10 minute run time. 


Everyone better watch out for actress Andra Day at the Oscars this year. In her first ever acting role, the Grammy nominated singer/songwriter falls head first into this role with brazen unashamed honesty. Through her singing in the film, performing all the songs herself, she achieves the perfect mix of a raspy weathered voice that somehow also manages to be pristine and light at the same time. She’s a woman who’s wounded and fragile but still tenaciously defiant.  


The United States vs. Billie Holiday is thankfully far from a sanitized interpretation. Its inclusion of ominous drug use, unstable affairs, racial violence, and unglamorous nudity will help viewers grasp the reality of the coarse, gritty, stained, raw, and marginalized life Billie Holiday lived off stage. It’s this messiness that makes the film feel honest and realistic. It takes a while to get its engines revving in the first 40 minutes, but once it gets going, this film takes viewers to absorbing places. (A beautifully poignant sequence of Holiday journeying through a surreal, drug-fueled collision of her memories is especially unexpected and powerful.)         


The film paints this extraordinary figure of music not as an inevitable casualty of Black hardship, but as a politically historical example of courage standing up against white supremacy years before the civil rights movement gained national prominence and greater momentum. Here’s hoping this rich film, brimming with content and heart, receives more attention at the Oscars.

Casey T. Allen is a native of Utah who graduated from Utah State University with a Bachelor's degree in English in 2007. He has worked in many capacities throughout USU campus and enjoys his time at UPR to continually exercise his writing.