The United States Vs. Billie Holiday tells an absolutely heartbreaking, although inspiring and empowering, story.
I have to admit that I knew very little about the story of Billie Holiday before watching this. I knew there was some drug abuse, and I knew about the song Strange Fruit, and the controversy surrounding it. However, I didn’t know about Jimmy Fletcher at all, and what he did to Billie. That is a large part of what I appreciated about this film — showing me the full story of the things this woman endured, and how she was treated just for sticking to her guns.
This movie is about the life of Billie Holiday. About her struggles. She wrote a song about lynching called Strange Fruit, and the government did not want her to sing it. They were afraid because, well, because she was singing about the truth. She battles drug addiction as well, which is painful to watch at times. When she is betrayed by someone she trusts, things only get worse for her.
What Works With The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
Andra Day straight up crushes her role as Billie Holiday in this film. She steals every single scene she is in, and then some. Her mannerisms and her emotions really deliver the intensity of this story from scene to scene. She looks stunning in a gown up on stage singing, but then we see her struggling with drug addiction so realistically behind the scenes. Which all too often is the reality of it, isn’t it? Putting on a happy face and playing the part when you are in the public eye, but keeping your internal struggles and vices private?
As for the rest of the acting, I don’t have any complaints. Well, except for Leslie Jordan who was just distracting in general. But Trevante Rhodes, Miss Lawrence, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Natasha Lyonne all shine in their roles. This is a great ensemble cast, and I loved watching them play off each other in scenes. Just incredible.
The cinematography should be applauded here too. There are many moments that do a great job of giving a scene what it deserves due to the camera work. One comes immediately to mind, but it is one that I don’t want to spoil. Just look out for a powerful moment when they are on the road. The camera movements and angles in that one — coupled with the score and the emotional acting, brought me to tears.
Speaking of the score, one of my favorite parts of this film was getting to listen to Billie Holiday songs over and over. I was swaying in my seat and really enjoying the jazz club performances. Andra Day, who I assume is singing herself as she is a singer, absolutely captures the Blues of these songs. She gave me chills from time to time and I just loved watching her perform.
What Doesn’t Work With The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
There are two things that took away from this movie. The first issue is that it is over two hours long and it feels over two hours long. There are moments that drag on, especially in the middle, that could have been shortened or edited out completely. I understand wanting to tell the full story but when the audience is checking their watch after the first hour wondering how they aren’t even halfway done, that isn’t a good thing.
The first 45 minutes or so had me completely engaged, and then this film lost me for about 30 minutes. However, it brought me back around in the end, which I suppose is a good thing. While I understand why drugs and sex needed to be a part of the film, I don’t think they needed to be in it as much as they were. That is where a lot of moments when on too long. If the script had been tightened up a bit, and some scenes cut or removed, this movie would have flowed a lot better.
This movie dives deep into the live and struggles of Billie Holiday, a woman who not only sang the blues, she lived them. There was a lot about her life that I didn’t know, and seeing it in this movie made me respect her even more. Parts of this movie are hard to watch — you will know the ones I am talking about when you see them. All of the acting in this movie is spot on, and only adds to the intensity and emotions.
While it does go on for far too long, the movie overall is more than worth watching. Be warned, there is a lot of drug and sex — and some violence as well. These movie will make you upset, which really is the point of the story. Just go into it while in the right mindset and you will be ok.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is a movie that is quite hard to watch at times — but absolutely necessary to do so.
About The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
The legendary Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, spent much of her career being adored by fans across the globe, all while the Federal Department of Narcotics targeted her with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair. Inspired by her life story, THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY intimately examines her struggles with addiction, fame and heartbreaking love.
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Tessa Smith is a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved Film and TV Critic. She is also a Freelance Writer. Tessa has been in the Entertainment writing business for almost ten years and is a member of several Critics Associations including the Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, and the Greater Western New York Film Critics Association.