REVIEW: Despite strong lead performance, ‘U.S. v Holiday’ doesn’t hold up

There are many politicians, musicians and others who deserve good biopic movies. There are also a lot of not so good biopics out there about interesting people.

Unfortunately, Billie Holiday meets the former and this film fits the latter.

“The United States vs Billie Holiday” follows the titular singer (Andra Day) mostly during her career in the 1940s, with a heavy focus on her song “Strange Fruit.” The song references lynching and came not long after an anti-lynching bill was rejected by the United States Senate.

Early on in the film, the FBI is shown as being paranoid of the song to the point where they fear the music will encourage the Civil Rights movement more. Driven by this, the agency targets Holiday, mainly by going after her on drug charges, as Holiday was using substances during her career.

This was a movie I was rooting for that sadly fell short of expectations. Holiday’s life is a compelling story and an audience can become engaged initially by her background. However, the movie continually loses steam over the course of its run time eventually rolling to a halt.

This is partially because of how scattered the film feels. It’s understandable that director Lee Daniels wanted to give a well rounded look at Billie Holiday’s life, yet it feels like the movie goes off on too many tangents, causing it to be unfocused.

Had this been a miniseries, whole episodes could have been devoted to different sections of Holiday’s life. In a movie, with more limited time, though, it’s better to make things more concise. That’s not the case with this, as it goes through so many years of Holiday’s life until her death and explores so many things that her impact kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

Additionally, the pacing is rather off. There’s a point where the movie reaches the titular court case against Holiday, and the way the movie has been rolling, it comes across as if there’s a conclusion nearing, yet it’s only 40 minutes into the run time.

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Courtesy Lee Daniels Entertainment and Hulu.

It also doesn’t help that the movie uses an interview Holiday is doing as a framing device where she brings up things to be explored in flashbacks. This framing device feels more as though it’s padding the running time, rather than offering additional insight.

Another problem with “The United States vs Billie Holiday” is its visual style. Daniels and cinematograhper Andrew Dunn have odd visual cues, where some scenes will be in black and white for a short period and then transition to color, and others where it appears like the movie is being shot on an older camera.

It’s as if the film is trying to remind the audience that this movie took place during that time period, like the set and costume designs don’t already do that.

Some of the stylistic choices during a flashback to Holiday’s youth as well as in a montage that shows her interactions with another main character feel peculiar, too, and out of place in what’s been a fairly standard biopic.

With all that said, the movie is in fact helped greatly by Day who plays the titular character. She really puts in the work for this role, and it shows, whether the character is on or off stage.

Unfortunately the supporting cast don’t get as much of an ability to shine as many of them play under written characters for the most part.

Despite this, though, the movie as a whole does take an important look at the wrongdoing done toward the Black community during that time period, and the injustice done to those who were just trying to inspire positive social changes in the country.

“The United States vs Billie Holiday” unfortunately doesn’t work all too well as a feature film. For those interested in the Civil Rights movement, music background, Holiday herself, or history buffs, this one might be worth a watch. But it doesn’t work well enough for a broad appeal. 2 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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