A good portion of the critical community has ixnayed Lee Daniels‘ The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu, 2.26) — 67% Rotten Tomatoes, 54% Metacritic. But everyone (HE included) approves of Andra Day‘s performance as Holiday, so there’s that.
It’s a story about heroin-using, velvet-toned Billie Holiday, perhaps the greatest American blues singer of the 20th Century, and the constant persecution of the poor woman in the late ’40s and ’50s by Federal Bureau of Narcotics honcho Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) and a charming, lower-level agent named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) whom Holiday “takes a shine to” despite being a predator.
We’re not just talking about an authoritarian campaign to eliminate the scourge of drugs and needles but a racist determination to punish Holiday for occasionally (often?) singing “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about lynching of African Americans. Anslinger and others in his realm felt that the song might goad African Americans into this or that form of social protest.
The movie basically says that (a) Holiday won’t stop using smack (obviously regrettable but then again she’s not hurting anyone except herself) and (b) Anslinger and his goons won’t stop arresting and harassing her and making her life miserable. And it goes on and on like that for 130 minutes, give or take.
Holiday finally dies in 1959 at age 44. She could have had a gentler, happier life, or at least one less defined by persecution.
I didn’t “enjoy” watching Daniels’ film — it’s an absolute slog to sit through. I was looking at the time code and muttering “lemme outta here” over and over. But at the same time it’s his most rigorous, ambitious and meticulously mounted film (period detail and all) and so I had to admit that it’s his “best” film. especially when compared to his previous four stabs at direction, none of which I was especially knocked out by — Shadowboxer, Precious, The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
When I say “best” I mean that it’s his biggest, boldest “try” — a film that’s not just about a certain character but about the whole racist enchilada of the U.S. of A. in the bad old days of the ’40s and ’50s.
On 1.28 I wrote that Day‘s performance “as the gifted, tortured, persecuted and self-destructive Holiday is obviously an Oscar-calibre thang…Andra Day for Best Actress, Andra Day for Best Actress, Andra Day for Best Actress.”