What the hell happened to Lee Daniels?
He made Precious back in 2009 and it kicked ass. It was searing, it was heartbreaking, it was stylish, it was deeply personal. That movie took the world by storm, complete with two Oscar wins (for supporting actress Mo’Nique and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher) out of six nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director).
But then he made Lee Daniels’ The Butler in 2013. It was an overstuffed mess, cramming five decades’ worth of plot and themes into 130 minutes. It’s like the filmmakers had no idea what they wanted to make except for Oscar-bait, so it all evened out into a couple of solid performances in a pile of otherwise featureless glop.
Nearly a decade later, Lee Daniels has returned with The United States vs. Billie Holliday, which is basically more of the same.
We open with a title card, helpfully reminding us that the U.S. Senate never even considered an anti-lynching law until 1937, and it didn’t pass. In response, Billie Holliday performed the song “Strange Fruit“, written by a Jewish communist named Abel Meeropol. Naturally, the song’s background — to say nothing of its graphic portrayal of lynchings — made it a rallying cry for activists in the nascent Civil Rights Movement. This despite — or perhaps because of — efforts from the government to try and shut the song down.
Billie Holliday’s big claim to infamy is a song about black people getting lynched. And she continues to sing that song, knowing full well that black people have been lynched for far less. There’s a noble kind of irony in that.
(Side note: Another title card at the end reminds us that the “Emmett Till Antilynching Act” was introduced last year. It passed the House in February of 2020, but Sen. Rand Paul [R-KY] blocked the bill from going to the Senate. Over 150 years since the end of the goddamn Civil War and we still don’t have a federal anti-lynching law in the books.)
Cut to 1947, and Holliday (here played by newcomer Andra Day) has been singing “Strange Fruit” for the past ten years or so, in spite of her manager, her husband, and various government agents all pressuring her not to. This is where we meet our main antagonist: Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. No joke, this guy started the War on Drugs a good 50 years before Reagan came along, and his reasons for cracking down on drugs were openly racist.
(Side note: The movie goes a step further, speculating that Anslinger was also doing this out of pride, after Prohibition failed while Anslinger was assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Prohibition. I might add that the real Harry Anslinger was in his fifties during the events of the film, and he’s being played here by Garrett Hedlund at age 37.)
Anyway, Anslinger has been tasked by J. Edgar Hoover himself with shutting down Billie Holliday and her un-American jazz music. But of course Holliday can’t be arrested for being black or singing a song. She can, however, be arrested for doing drugs. Indeed, Holliday was a prolific heroin junkie, which likely contributed to her death of cirrhosis complications at the age of 44.
The filmmakers go into deep and explicit detail regarding Holliday’s on-again-off-again drug use, her turbulent love life through three joyless marriages, and her traumatic childhood living in a brothel with her prostitute mother. Basically put, Billie Holliday is a wreck, and the filmmakers are determined to make a huge thematic point about every single possible reason why she’s a wreck.
To be clear, the filmmakers do a good job of connecting all the disparate topics, showing how they all feed into each other to create a huge sprawling system, empowering people to uphold the racist status quo by virtue of “doing the right thing” even as they subjugate black people. It’s such a seductive and all-encompassing system that self-professed allies can be coaxed into upholding it. Even black people can be made to turn on each other, doing “the right thing” by way of the white man’s agenda, willfully pretending that the white man won’t grind them into powder the very second they become an inconvenience.
Of course I always appreciate a film about racial trauma that treats racism as a deep-seated systemic issue and not just a few bad apples who are mean to people of color for no reason. Bonus points for showing how oppressed minorities can be made to act against their own people and their own self-interest — that’s genuinely fascinating to me. The problem is that when anyone puts any kind of good-faith effort into exploring the various interconnected ways that racism has been hard-wired into every facet of American life… there’s no end to that rabbit hole. Even a five-part documentary series could only skim the surface. With a movie that only runs for just over two hours, it at once feels like the filmmakers are doing too much and not enough.
As if that wasn’t enough, we also have a secondary protagonist/romantic lead in Jimmy Fletcher, here played by Trevante Rhodes. Fletcher is one of several black men working as undercover law enforcement agents, exploring avenues closed off to white people. Fletcher’s arc is that he got into law enforcement because he deeply hated the lethal effect of drugs on the African-American community, only to discover that the War on Drugs is just the white man’s excuse to wage war on people of color. So Fletcher is kind of a double agent, especially as he gets more romantically and sexually involved with the woman he was assigned with putting away for good.
I might add that while it’s a matter of historical record that Fletcher deeply regretted his role in Billie Holliday’s legal difficulties, there’s no documented evidence that the two of them were romantically or sexually involved. This whole romantic subplot and Fletcher’s huge development arc — both of which further complicate a movie that’s already overstuffed — were inventions of the filmmakers.
While Trevante Rhodes is a powerhouse actor, and Fletcher makes for a compelling character, his arc derails the film to an extent that can’t be overstated. Really, the filmmakers had a hard enough time focusing on Billie Holliday and her mountain of problems, letting her be our guide through all the issues the filmmakers wanted to talk about. That said, it helps that Andra Day’s performance is so utterly captivating that she dominates the screen at every turn. This is a daring, dynamic, utterly devastating performance that positively demands attention. Seriously, if the entire film lived up to the quality of her “Strange Fruit” song break 80 minutes in, this would be a very different review.
It’s no surprise that Garrett Hedlund is the weak link in the cast — even if he’s perfectly suited to play a pasty-white hate sink, the role so obviously needed an older man. As for the rest of the supporting cast, they do well enough. It’s clear that everyone else is only there to hold up Day and Rhodes, which is fine by me.
The problem with The United States vs. Billie Holliday is unquestionably Lee Daniels. In her closing years, Billie Holliday dealt with a number of compelling and duplicitous characters, to say nothing of her struggles with drug addiction, her unstable love life, her history as a whore’s daughter, her persecution at the hands of white racists in every level of American society, and her legacy as an entertainer. Any one of these subjects would’ve made for a fascinating picture, but Daniels just had to try and tackle all of them. He proved himself too easily distracted, using Billie Holliday to make a dozen social commentaries (all necessary and timely, don’t get me wrong), rather than using the social themes to strengthen Billie Holliday’s story. I’m sure a more seasoned filmmaker could’ve done a more elegant job of dovetailing the various themes together (Just look at F. Gary Gray’s work and artistic choices, paring down the vast history and roster of N.W.A. for Straight Outta Compton.), but this is one Oscar-nominated director who wasn’t equal to the task.
Andra Day took her place among the stars as Lee Daniels flew too close to the sun. It’s still worth seeing once, but only if you already have a Hulu account and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t an option for whatever reason.