The United States Vs. Billie Holiday

This movie is all over the map, but it is anchored by some stunning cinematic flourishes and a truly phenomenal performance by Andra Day.

In the 1940’s, the singer Billie Holiday endures drug addiction, abusive men, and a targeted campaign against her by the U.S. government. Andra Day plays Billie Holiday as a defiant woman with a raw vulnerability that lies just under the surface.

Lee Daniels has directed a movie that hops skips and jumps around in a decade of Billie Holiday’s life. Stylistically, the movie is all over the map. Almost every scene in the film is shot and edited in a different style. Some scenes are presented in black and white, some in color. Some scenes look like period accurate newsreels, some are shot in a very modern shaky cam style. This keeps the film visually engaging and often thrilling, but it does feels a distracting. It definitely pulled me out of the story.

The film is also told from a strange shifting point of view. Some scenes are from Billie’s perspective. Some are from her bands point of view, and others are from the point of view of the government agents trying to take Billie down. This shifting perspective makes the movie very hard to follow at times especially at the start. There are traditional character introductions, so each new person remains a bit of a stranger until their relationship is established. Once the introductions are made and the relationships are firmly established, the movie really starts to cook. The stylistic choices really shine through and the movie becomes something special. The trouble is how long it takes to get there. It’s a difficult way to begin a movie and a little more stylistic calm at the start would have helped me follow the plot and get into the story.

When I think back at the film all of those issues fade away in comparison to Andra Day’s performance as Billie Holiday. She is truly incredible. She won the Golden Globe for best actress, and she definitely deserved it. This performance is emotionally raw. She runs the gamut from wildly ferocious to mean and broken. This is Day’s first acting role. She is originally a singer, and she puts her voice to work her to beautiful effect. She gives stunning renditions of Holiday’s classic songs. Her voice has a smooth stunning quality that slowly becomes more and more raspy and hard throughout her arduous journey. Every inch of this performance is stunning.

My favorite section of the film is truly transcendent. After witnessing something traumatic, Billie walks into a room, a character appears to try to console her, she takes some comfort but ultimate breaks away. She moves into a different room and sees her friends. She takes some comfort from them, but quickly breaks away and enters a room where a man is preparing heroin for her to take. It is a stunning bit of surreal expressionism. The movie breaks free from the objective reality of the film in order to give us a visual representation of her internal world and her emotional experience. It feels like one continuous take, and it beautifully utilizes this dreamlike single take effect to give us a glimpse into her inner life. I love it. It’s worth watching the movie just for this scene.

All in all, this is a flawed yet worthwhile film. Day’s performance and a few of these expressionistic directorial flourishes elevate this film above its flaws for me. I can recommend it but with the caveat that it is a little scattered in its style and storytelling. You can find this movie streaming on Hulu.

It is my cup of tea. B+

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