The United States vs. Billie Holiday has produced one of the biggest surprises to come out of this year’s Golden Globes. Andra Day proved victorious in the Lead Actress in a Drama category as she beat out favourites Frances McDormand and Carey Mulligan to receive the prize for her turn as legendary jazz singer, Billie Holiday. Chronicling Billie’s life leading up to, during and after her controversial prison time, The United States vs. Billie Holiday does have its flaws but it features brilliant performances from Day and the rest of the cast. Directed by Lee Daniels from a script written by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, The United States vs. Billie Holiday has found a star in Andra Day.
The film does take a while to find its natural pace but once it does, it is enjoyable to watch. The first half of the film feels rushed, flitting quickly from one event to the other unexpectedly without really letting the characters breathe. I think that because Parks has a lot more experience in writing plays, this technique would work much better on stage than on screen but the second half brings some brilliant characterisation. Daniels’ direction also shines in the second half as we see Holiday’s rebellion and unapologetic attitude take hold and her descent into drug and alcohol abuse.
It goes without saying that Andra Day is heart and soul of the film. Without her fantastic performance this film would not have the power and attention it currently does have. What makes Day’s performance so captivating is that she doesn’t try to be Holiday through mimicking but really delves deep into Holiday’s layered personality. On the surface, she is a hugely successful singer who is loved all over the country but inside she is riddled with addiction combined with bouts of domestic violence and run-ins with the law. With biopics being a mainstay on the awards circuit in recent years, it is refreshing to see a performance that isn’t just an imitation and not much more. Although the film around her has its flaws, Day elevates the whole viewing experience and makes it both rewarding and positive overall.
In support, Trevante Rhodes is great as federal agent Jimmy Fletcher. Having previously had his own breakout role in the Oscar winning masterpiece Moonlight as adult Chiron, Rhodes sees a change of pace here as a conflicted federal agent who plays a huge part in Holiday’s imprisonment. Thinking that being an agent was going to make the world better for African-Americans, he soon realises the corruption that lies in the higher ranks ran by the white elite who are against the civil rights movement. Although Rhodes isn’t in the film a lot, he gives the audience that outsider perspective as he follows Holiday and her entourage on tour.
The film really hits its stride in the second half as Holiday embarks on her tour followed by Fletcher. One scene that is a highlight in particular is when Fletcher is high on heroin and Holiday tells him about her troubled upbringing. The way it is staged as Fletcher sits and views a young Holiday being kicked out by her mother. The structure of the scene prevents the film from simply being a linear scene by scene recreation of Billie’s life. In terms of the direction, the film feels like it is split into two films with the first half being less adventurous and following a move traditional and expected structure and the second half diving into a more experimental and unpredictable approach. This could coincide with Holiday’s descent into addiction and her life spiralling out of control but I think the film as a whole would have benefitted hugely if the approach was more consistent throughout. If Daniels had directed the first half of the film like the second, the discussion around the quality of the film overall would be hugely different.
Although The United States vs. Billie Holiday may not be the strongest film in contention this awards season, it is definitely worth the watch purely for its great final act and Andra Day’s breakthrough performance. I expect to see Day recognised further with an Academy Award nomination at least and it’s exciting what the future holds for her if she decides to pursue a career in film.
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The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available on Sky Cinema now!