There are a lot of race issue films set in mid-century America getting our attention this season. Whether presented with detailed historical accuracy or stylized as stage plays, they seek to educate on the Black American experience during these decades, not just how awful it was, but how and why it got that way and continues to stay that way.
For Lee Daniels, this is all too high-minded. Movies aren’t supposed to be watched in a lecture hall. They’re meant to be enjoyed with bite-sized foods covered in cheese. And so, with messy snacks in mind, Daniels has made The United States vs Billie Holiday.
We open with a gruesome vintage image of a lynched Black man being burned by a white crowd, then cut directly to Andra Day over-styled to the hilt as Billie Holiday. She stands frozen, facing us directly, a red stage curtain behind her, immense white orchids in her hair, and a dress that barely hints at the time period. As a one-two punch, this intro seems designed for people who channel surf between true crime stories and RuPaul’s Drag Race. And other than when I sit my 90-year-old dad, nobody does that.
But Daniels digs right into to this formula, cutting stock footage from the era into his film in a clumsy attempt to lend a Ken Burns authenticity to his nighttime soap histrionics.
Day, a lauded recording artist, easily nails Holiday’s singing voice, and translates that into a plausible version of the woman offstage. She makes a valiant effort to hold up Holiday’s dignity, but Daniels prefers his actresses going at it like a Real Housewife after three daiquiris, so most of what we see of Day’s Billie is needle in arm, fighting and degrading sex.
To add insult to injury, Day is given no help steering this runaway train, because Daniels has surrounded her with a stunt cast that is far less successful at finding something to do with their poorly written parts. Mariah Carey worked in Precious because she didn’t play a woman concerned solely with showing side boob. Here, though, Daniels’ stunt players are written to type, and they aren’t the right type.
First up is that shady gay munchkin (Karen’s language, not mine) from Will&Grace. He’s in old lady drag as an interviewer grilling Holiday for flashbacks, and how are we supposed to focus on Holiday when Leslie Jordan is on the other side of the frame looking like when Drew Barrymore put lipstick and a wig on E.T.? Maybe this character is based on someone real, but it’s so silly and distracting that it’s not worth Googling.
And while I’m usually all in for Daniels’ male harems, giving Trevante Rhodes (the hottest of all the hot guys in Moonlight) an anal sex scene doesn’t quite compensate for giving him such a useless character. It’s a close call, though, considering the screen time his glutes get. For the vanilla flavor we have Garrett Hedlund, who can handle a CGI dragon fine, but a character that’s representing the whole of systemic racism in Jim Crow-era American law enforcement is above his pay grade. And he never takes his clothes off.
The most stunted of the casting is Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, an actress known to publicly flaunt exaggerated mannerisms whom Lyonne chooses to downplay even when everyone else is behaving like a room full of ADD kids off their meds.
This episode in Holiday’s tumultuous life sounds compelling, but maybe Daniels thought there wasn’t enough to it. Even at the time, Holiday was an admitted drug user, so the FBI’s attempt to catch her at it may have seemed anti-climactic. And the premise that the government wanted to lock her up just to keep her from performing Strange Fruit may have been true, but there were other ways for people to listen to the controversial song than going to see her live.
So Daniels sensationalizes her drug habit, her relationships, her quirks, even her wardrobe, which must have emptied the silk flower aisle in every Michaels in the greater LA area. He throws in side characters simply to frame an overworked narrative structure or fill a circus tent of woke representations. And the sex, come on. Do we need to have it suggested that this abused woman preferred rough (and often anal) sex in order to understand her better? That she lusted after every threatening male presence that came into her life? Or does this degrade the real Billie Holiday for no purpose other than a shocking scene?
Who knows how Andra Day justified taking this role, but she does commit to it, and though one can cringe at the director’s choices, she manages to create a Billie Holiday that is visceral and memorable.
The most frustrating thing is what a disservice this is to Billie Holiday. Daniels leaves us with the image of a screwed-up junkie, putting this image over the Holiday we knew prior to his opportunistic rendering – the one-of-a-kind voice who immortalized Strange Fruit as a devastating epic poem carrying the pain of an entire race. Why not structure the film around that, solidify Holiday’s place as an iconic American diva, rather than dragging her through the gutter like she’s a story arc on Empire?
Billie Holiday’s legacy made it through Jim Crow racism intact. Daniels just laid her out again for the crows to pluck.