Review: "The United States vs. Billie Holiday"
Oscar season is my favorite time of the year. Yes, the awards don’t mean everything, and film is subjective after all, but it’s fun seeing films recognized that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed by the vast majority of consumers. One of the downfalls of Oscar season for me is when a film that is not entirely great or even very good has a standout performance from an actor and that actor goes on to be nominated for an Academy Award. I take it upon myself to watch that movie, knowing fairly well that I probably won’t enjoy or even be able to appreciate the film outside of that specific actor's performance. As someone who doesn’t necessarily watch movies for a living but certainly more than just for fun, I don’t think any film is a waste of my time. Sure, some are better than others, and some have made me rethink my life choices but generally speaking every film I watch contributes to my life and my end goal of watching every movie worth watching.
Unfortunately this outlook does not always pay off and every now and then I put myself through a film that I do not wholly enjoy, or sometimes loathe. The United States vs. Billie Holiday was hardly a film that I hated, but had it not been up for Oscar gold there is a good chance I would’ve just skipped over it entirely. What little buzz there was surrounding the film was focused on actress Andra Day and her portrayal of jazz singer Billie Holiday, but one strong performance doesn’t make a great film, and by the end of the 2 hour and 10 minute runtime I found myself wishing I had used my time watching a better film or at least not watched it solely for the Oscars.
My general rule if I don’t like a film is to not talk about it, as that’s the greatest disservice I feel that I can do, and I tend to not review films I don’t enjoy, as I don’t find the process all too fulfilling, but if I feel that I have genuine criticisms that I can offer without just dunking on a film then I may take my time to put those thoughts into words. This is one of those instances.
Andra Day as Billie Holiday is the reason you watch this movie, and Day has gone above and beyond to embed herself in this character. This really is the acting transformation of the year so it makes perfect sense that she’s had such a successful awards season. Without her performance the film falls apart and she’s one of the few redeeming qualities that the film has to offer, but the quality of the film around her does her no favors and by the end she is carrying it so much so that her performance seems almost comical. It’s a big, melodramatic performance that left me feeling the same way I felt watching a similar Oscar nominated role from last year with Renée Zellweger in Judy. A great performance that can’t really rise above the film it’s a part of and at the end of the day is trying so hard it begins to look goofy.
The film begins with Billie in an interview, and the story starts to play as if everything taking place is being told from her perspective, even cutting back to the interview at multiple points throughout the film very obviously telling us that the film exists within this interview. But the logic behind this framing device is completely thrown out the window early on when we follow a frequent spectator of Miss Holiday’s performances, Jimmy Fletcher, back home to his mother, making us follow an outside character and a conversation he has that exists purely to trick the viewer so that they can be surprised by different events later on. At this point you’d expect the film to drop the whole “this is a story being told by Billie Holiday” act, but no, the film continues to cut back and forth between the events of her life and the interview even though the ending of the film is literally the end of Billie’s life so it’s obviously after any such interview. Decisions like this make this film completely bewildering, and had the film begun mid interview and then settled in for a play by play of Holiday’s life perhaps I would be more forgiving but the insistence on keeping the interview format going lost me very early on.
The film jumps around more than a coked out treefrog, leaping from scene to scene with no explanation other than this is something that happened to Billie so it’s important that we see it. The film feels like a “greatest hits” of Billie’s life, and maybe that’s what the filmmakers were going for, focusing on the most prominent and personal moments for her, but to an audience unfamiliar with her story it presents a timeline that is confusing and altogether too all over the place for its own good. Aside from Billie, no other character is fully fleshed out. Her love interest played by Trevante Rhodes is a breath of fresh air when he appears on screen and his relationship with her offers some of the best scenes of the film, but when he’s not sharing the screen with her his storyline is reduced to a one dimensional turmoil with an embarrassingly cliché, evil, federal government.
The head of this evil is Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who is played by Garrett Hedlund. Anslinger is hellbent on taking Holiday down and silencing her use of the song “Strange Fruit” about the lynching of African Americans. Anslinger is depicted as literally nothing more than a despicable racist who has a hatred of every black person under the sun. While this is likely true, it gives Hedlund nothing to work with and he’s left to merely complain about the color of Holiday’s skin in most of his scenes. I would’ve liked a little more motivation for a big bad other than just being racist. It’s cheap, unimaginative, and leaves the character with less depth than a bathtub.
With all of these flaws in mind, there are a handful of moments throughout the film that held my interest enough to keep my movie watching experience from feeling like a complete waste of my time. As mentioned before, Andra Day really is terrific, and had the film matched her energy it really could’ve been something special. The scenes with Trevante Rhodes were easily my favorite, which in part had to do with his charisma, but also the vulnerability he shares with Billie Holiday, especially in one scene in particular where we witness just how broken Billie is, with most of the relationships in her life being toxic and abusive.
Aside from those few moments this film really didn’t do a whole lot for me. It frustrated me early on with its disjointed editing and the rest of my experience was mostly just me waiting for the end credits. Not everyone will have the same reaction that I did, and if you enjoyed this film or got something from it then I am happy for you, but alas, that was not the case for me.