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Andra Day is riveting in wildly ambitious film ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’

Andra Day, as Billie Holiday, performing onstage in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."
Andra Day plays the title role in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” director Lee Daniels’ intense film about jazz vocal icon Billie Holiday.
(Takashi Seida/Hulu)

The iconic singer’s life story is a morality tale in which artistic triumph and personal tragedy are cast as equals

San Diego-bred singer Andra Day is so riveting as the doomed-but-defiant star of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” that you don’t need to know a thing about the late Holiday to be awed by Day’s career-making performance in her debut film role. She shines so brightly as the legendary jazz and blues singer that she often transcends the wildly ambitious, but too often uneven, work by Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels.

Of course, portraying Holiday would be a daunting task for the most seasoned of actors, which makes Day’s dazzling neophyte big-screen acting foray all the more impressive. She completely owns her role as both an actress and a musician (All the singing in the film is expertly done by Day herself.) The nightclub and concert performances here are exemplary, although it’s beyond doubtful that Holiday invented stage-diving in the late 1950s.

Day captures Holiday as a fascinatingly flawed person who was a victor on the stage and, too often, an embattled victim off it. Fierce yet fragile, beset by demons from within and without, Holiday was a proudly uncompromising Black woman when it came to her art. She transformed her pain into timeless music, and Day and the film consistently capture that duality, despite the sometimes disjointed execution and confusing, back-and-forth chronology.

Holiday was 44 when she died in 1959 of drug- and alcohol-related causes, after years of being subjected to systemic racism and relentless persecution by the U.S. government’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The bureau was alarmed, then increasingly angered, by Holiday’s repeated performances of “Strange Fruit,” a harrowing ballad about the lynching of Blacks in the American South.

Almost apoplectic that she would inspire sympathy, if not outright solidarity, from some of her White fans, the bureau demanded that she stop performing “Strange Fruit.” Holiday’s refusal would, at least indirectly, lead to her death.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” centers on her persecution, which was fueled as much by Holiday’s high-profile position as a Black woman who fully appreciated her creative worth — and impact — as it was by her debilitating heroin use. To make her depiction of Holiday all the more realistic, the vanity-free Day lost 39 pounds and took up drinking and smoking. She also spent time with recovering addicts and learned how to channel the grim desperation of people who lived, and risked dying, for their next fix.

The kind of heavy lifting required for such a role is made even more challenging by the unwieldiness of this sprawling, two-hour-plus film, which sometimes seems to go in several directions at once. But Day, who is in almost every scene, captures her subject with an uncanny depth of feeling. This holds true even when some viewers may understandably want to avert their eyes from the intensely realistic physical and emotional violence she endures on screen.

Daniels and his crew capture the 1940s and ‘50s with loving attention to detail, while costume designer Paolo Nieddu has a field day with the sumptuous gowns Day wears as Holiday.

But no amount of visual pizazz can rectify how some scenes drag on and others are too short, or how the screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks is alternately dense and underwritten. And Daniels and Parks seem to assume viewers will have sufficient knowledge of Holiday and the government’s vendetta against her to make sense of the thorny and uneven script, parts of which are illuminated only in the film’s epilogue.

Regardless, Day captivates even when the film doesn’t. She expertly captures many facets of Holiday’s life and persona, from her sublime singing and exceptional artistry to her throaty laugh, her penchant for profanity, and her horrendously abusive relationships with a series of violent, manipulative men. Holiday married three of them.

That these men are portrayed in the film as variations on Ike Turner, minus even a hint of his undeniable musical genius, may make it easier for Daniels and Parks to paint them as the opportunistic villains they were. But their lack of dimension here is a missed opportunity to better convey why the constantly battered and bruised Holiday was drawn to them in the first place.

Trevante Rhodes, who was featured in the Oscar-winning 2016 film” Moonlight,” plays Jimmy Fletcher, the Black government agent who infiltrated Holiday’s inner circle. Fletcher engineered the drug bust that led to her one-year prison sentence, then fell in love with her after her release.

Rhodes has more screen time than any other male actor in the cast, but his character is underdrawn, more an observer than a protagonist. His White boss, played by Garrett Hedlund, sports a mustache, though it is not long enough to twirl, something he accomplishes figuratively instead.

Daniels draws a sensational performance out of Day, who could not have picked a deeper, more challenging pool to dive into for her first film. And the real-life story of Holiday, which tragically resonates all the more now in the era of Black Lives Matter, stands out as a morality tale in which artistic triumph and personal tragedy are cast as equals.

'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

Rating: Not rated

When: Available now

Where: Hulu

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes


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