A case could be made that nobody but Billie Holiday should sing "Strange Fruit," but it turns out there's room for more than one Holiday biopic.
"Lady Sings the Blues" featured a spectacular movie debut from Diana Ross as Holiday and a woozy, tragic romance, but its storytelling isn't entirely satisfying. "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" also boasts an impressive debut, this time by R&B singer Andra Day, and offers something new in its approach to examining her brief life. But it's unsatisfying, too.
Writer Suzan-Lori Parks and director Lee Daniels ("Precious," "The Butler") wisely avoid the cradle-to-grave biographical approach that makes many a "Ray" or "La Vie en Rose" feel more like a slide show than a movie. Coincidentally, their take mirrors the recent "Judas and the Black Messiah," with the FBI convincing a Black man to infiltrate the circle of a famous Black person in order to destroy them and their fight for social justice. The idea here is that "Strange Fruit," the song about lynching written by Abel Meeropol but made legendary by Holiday, was not just a devastating cabaret showstopper but its references to "Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze" helped launch a movement.
Overstating the case? Possibly, but "United States" is convincing, particularly in its depiction of Holiday's devotion to a song that the government and club promoters repeatedly try to prevent her from singing. The trouble with "United States" is that the FBI plot forces the movie to spend too much time with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes, from "Moonlight") and with a cartoonishly clueless radio interviewer (Leslie Jordan), whose scenes cannot possibly hold up to Holiday's. It's like one of those hits where a superstar like Beyoncé or Kelis sings the hook and it's all you want to hear but you have to listen to the boring verses to get there.
Day may not be a superstar yet, but her commitment to the role is impressive; it can't have been fun stepping into the mind of a troubled woman who, according to the movie, spends all her offstage time either sobbing, yelling or shooting up. Her singing sounds very much like Holiday but retains its own personality, rather than feeling imitative. Holiday's reputed wit is not in the script and Day can't capture that, but she convincingly evokes the passion and raw abandon of the singer who died at 44, broke and with the police harassing her all the way to her deathbed.
Subtlety has never interested Daniels, whose "The Paperboy" famously includes a scene in which Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron. Here, he goes nuts with the drug trips, which sometimes take one character into a flashback of another character, but the movie's mood swings suit the material, with its protagonist careening all over the place. Parks' dialogue is too on-the-nose — it's a movie set in the past where people often seem to know the future — but her affection for Holiday is evident throughout.
The filmmakers' sharpest insight has to do with "Strange Fruit." "People are calling the song a starting gun for a so-called civil rights movement" is one of those on-the-nose lines, but it also happens to be true. And as the movie's title cards note, the U.S. government has had numerous opportunities to condemn lynching and has failed to do so as recently as last June.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: R for nudity, drug use, violent images and strong language.