Movie: The United States v. Billie Holiday

born Eleanora Fagan

Andra Day started drinking (some) and smoking cigarettes to prepare for her leading role in the movie The United States v. Billie Holiday. She shared that detail in several interviews, including with Oprah Winfrey andUnited States v Billie Holiday Trevor Noah. But, she added, she avoided taking narcotics. She felt a lot of responsibility in taking the role of such a musical icon.

Her investment of time and manner was well-rewarded. Day sounded very much like the recordings I have of Lady Day. The mannerisms are quite credible. She deserved the Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

I do wish I liked the movie as much as I appreciated Andra Day’s performance.

On the other hand

The storyline was brutalizing to Billie, as she’s kicked, punched, slapped, and sexually exploited repeatedly. Yet the narrative is oddly contrived and disjointed, with an uneven tone, convoluted chronology, and wasted opportunities. There’s a flashback in a whorehouse that should have been less confusing and more impactful.

Near the beginning and end of the film was Leslie Jordan in a dreadful wig playing a celebrity journalist interviewing a financially desperate but unwilling Holiday. I found it cringeworthy.

It is documented that she was hounded by the feds, who got her dealer-level jail sentences for possession of small amounts of heroin. But Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the actual head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which became the Drug Enforcement Administration, was a one-note villain as written. The real man was clearly an avowed racist, who also hated jazz. But his rage over Strange Fruit, the anti-lynching song is without foundation, and, coming in 1947, was eight years after the recording.

A chunk of the film tells how Billie was betrayed by a Black informer and lover, an FBI agent, named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). It doesn’t bother me that it was largely fictionalized, but it didn’t provide help to the muddled narrative. The performers playing Louis Armstrong and Billie’s maybe-lover, actress Tallulah Bankhead, were disappointing cameos.

The director is Lee Daniels. The script was by Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. Daniels, in particular, has done great work in the past, directing Atar and the Butler and executive producing the TV series Empire.

Still, your experience may differ. While only 53% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked it, largely based on Andra’ Day’s performance, 88% of the general audience approved.

Lady Sings the Blues

Now I’m feeling the need to watch the 1972 movie Lady Sings the Blues. It was a Berry Gordy production starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor. Even though the critics were kinder to that film (69% positive), even the efficacious reviews were often a mixed bag. For instance, “Watch Ross dazzle in her screen debut but realize you will not gain much insight into Billie Holiday, the artist or the person.”

Maybe it’s because Billie Holiday was so much an enigma. In the recent movie, she says that she’d never read her own “autobiography,” ghostwritten by William Dufty. For legal reasons, the book had to leave significant information out, such as her relationships with Charles Laughton, in the 1930s, and with Bankhead, in the late 1940s.

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