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Film Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Johann Hari, Suzan-Lori Parks
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund

Synopsis: Follows Holiday during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair.

This film bookmarks itself on one central theme and focus on the narrative, and that is to do with the anti-lynching laws that are yet to be fully established in the United States. This is particularly focused on the black community, and the film makes it clear that even though this is a story from decades ago, there are still issues with racism in the US. This message is extremely powerful, and having the subtext at the start and end of the film help contextualise that idea when the film sometimes struggles to fully communicate it alone.

Even if the awards buzz is falling for this film, it is still worth keeping your eye on Andra Day. She is easily the best part of this film and gives a beautiful yet heartbreaking performance as Billie Holiday. She sells the glam of Holiday, as well as the pain that she went through during this time and the fight that she had for equality. It is hard not to be captivated by her throughout the entire runtime.

There are a few scenes that do stand out and hold up, primarily down to Day’s performance. In particular, it is the club sequences which ooze with style and glamour, whilst still packing a punch with the message and getting the themes of the film across. Whilst it can be desirable to want to transport to these luxurious clubs and relax, given the lovely costume and production design, it is hard to really place ourselves in there due to the darker themes in the narrative, which is effectively done.

Unfortunately, when we are not in a club or focused primarily on Billie Holiday, I struggled to actually care about the story. It falls into the traditional bio-pic tropes, and yet somehow still feels dull whilst doing so. It is clear to me that the events in this film are not authentic and the story loses a distinct voice to guide that pathway, focusing on other aspects of Holiday’s life which just aren’t presented well.

This is a film that is dialogue-heavy and unfortunately the script is lacking any real passion. Whilst I commend the filmmakers for approaching a subject matter like this, it feels like there is something preventing them for going all in. It feels like at times, the story is sacrificed to keep the film somewhat pleasant and enjoyable for a more general audience to write, but that creates a negative impact as the film drags on with the long runtime and runs out of things to say.

This is sadly a film where it is quite easy to forget, especially as one that is going to be hidden amongst the Oscar contenders and other streamer options available right now. There is nothing special about it, the writing becomes bland and the only aspect worth watching for is Andra Day. Whilst there are glimmers of strong moments within the story, it is not enough to warrant a 2+ hour watch.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The United States vs Billie Holiday is available to watch in the US on Hulu on February 26th. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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