“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is more than half over before we finally hear the devastating song at its heart. The legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday (singer Andra Day, in her screen debut), exquisitely gowned in white with a trademark gardenia in her hair, stands at a microphone and sings “Strange Fruit” before a large, rapt audience; the lyrics, which vividly describe a lynching, quietly fill the hall. We watch mostly in tight close-up: Holiday’s eyes flick sideways, as the song slowly, painfully pours from her. In the final lyric (“Here is a strange and bitter crop”), there’s a long pause before the last word, as if she’s daring someone to stop her.
For much of Holiday’s short life — she died in 1959, at just age 44 — people tried to stop her from singing that song. This movie, directed by Lee Daniels (“Precious”) from a screenplay by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, focuses on how the then-head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (played by Garrett Hedlund) targeted her for investigation because of the song, using a Black agent named Jimmie Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to gain her trust and gather dirt on her drug use.
You watch this movie rooting for it; wanting to be dazzled by its portrait of Holiday’s bravery in repeatedly performing “Strange Fruit” (written by a Jewish schoolteacher, it became an anti-lynching anthem) in those pre-civil-rights years. And Day’s performance is indeed dazzling. Like Diana Ross, whose first big-screen role was playing Holiday in 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” Day instantly becomes a movie star; she holds this movie on her shoulders, showing us Holiday’s pain, her heroin-clouded way of wandering onstage like a sad ghost, her exquisite razor of a voice, her perpetual look of disappointment as she gazes at the many men who did her wrong.
But “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” isn’t quite worthy of the performance at its core. Daniels’ tone wanders all over — characters are picked up and dropped, drugged/dream sequences are florid and confusing — and Parks’ screenplay never quite seems to find the heart of the woman standing at its center. It’s a long movie, but it doesn’t really go anywhere; we’re left, at the end of Holiday’s tragic life, still not quite sure who she is. “Wouldn’t your life be easier if you just behaved?” a repellent radio interviewer asks Holiday, near the end. She turns away from the camera, a tear falling from her eye. This movie is the story of a brilliantly talented woman, broken by racism and drugs and despair; you watch wanting to learn more about that life, and to better understand that tear.
(Note: This video contains explicit language.)