The United States vs Billie Holiday (2021) Review

By Stephanie Chapman

It is often a memorable experience when you can watch a biopic and feel like you are watching the private momentsexperienced only by the main character.  It is even more memorable when the actor portraying that role is so good, they trick your brain into thinking you are watching the real historical figure.

Andra Day is that actor and she gives the performance of her lifetime as Billie Holiday, the famed and beloved jazz singer of the 1940s and 50s. Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Suzan-Lori Parks and based on the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” makes multiple attempts to tell a story that is so complex no feature film could possibly contain it.

Although a commendable effort is made to present the complicated story of Holiday’s life to the audience, this film at times struggles to contain the specific elements that comprise it.  Jimmy Fletcher (portrayed by TrevanteRhodes) is another central character to the story who is introduced early on in the film. As an agent for the FBI, he infiltrates Holiday’s life and inner circle in what ultimately becomes a messy, diabolical and sinister plot on behalf of the FBI to have her jailed. At times the story seems to focus solely on his life and inner conflicts as he comes to terms with his place in the bureau and their manipulation of his race to terrorize his people. The film is then rounded out by supporting characters that seem more like fillers than substantial additions to the storyline. 

At times the audience might find themselves struggling to understand the movie’s central focus. Whether it’s Holiday’s drug addiction, her complicated relationship with the men in her life, or her goal to shine a light on the murder of her people. All of those are true simultaneously,but the film has a hard time deciding which one to dedicate its focus and (often times) writing. In the end, the film narrows its focus on the bureau’s ultimate goal, which is to keep her from singing her hit song “Strange Fruit”. Her personal ode’ to the African Americans in the south who are being lynched at record numbers.

Even with its imperfections, “The United States vs. Billie Holliday” is a film everyone should watch. Although many people have heard her name, not many know the tragedy of her story. This film shines a light on all of the things that make her such a beloved historical figure. Although flawed, this film deserves praise for its efforts in telling a story often obscured by assumptions.  

Listen to our full spoiler review with Stephanie as guest host on Movie Reviews #224