Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is the next enigma in this awards season and could prove to be one of the more divisive entries. Daniels, who became the second Black filmmaker to be nominated for best director for 2009’s “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” (the first was John Singleton for 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood”) hasn’t captured the attention of voters since then. On the opening day of SAG voting and dropping its first trailer, it looks to angle for an Oscar play, in particular, for Andra Day as the iconic blues singer. Judging by some of the discussions, this is not the slam dunk contender pundits were expecting.
The film looks at Billie Holiday (Day) during the time in her career when she becomes a target by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover string operation led by Jimmy Fletcher, a Black Federal Agent. The two engage in a heated love affair that spans years up to the final days of Holiday’s life.
Some have and will be taken by Daniels’ undoubtedly passionate approach to the material. His respect for the First Lady of Blues is evident as he maneuvers through her battle with addiction and multiple love affairs, not shying away from its more graphic moments. But in the conversation of the five best directorial achievements of this extended year, it looks like a very high mountain to climb for Daniels’ name to be called on March 15, when Oscar nominations are announced.
The consensus high point is Day’s committed and lived-in portrayal. Running the gamut from immensely moving to unwittingly comical, the early awards buzz had surrounded her anticipated portrayal, and she gives everything she has to rise above the film’s flaws. In the best actress race with a deep bench of viable and Oscar-worthy women, the reception for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” will probably be the most panned of the leading contenders. It may be difficult for the Grammy-nominated actress to overcome, but her dedication may be hard to ignore. She could fall into the same boat as Leslie Odom Jr. from “One Night in Miami,” as she’s a co-writer for one of the submitted songs. Hulu will be submitting “Tigress & Tweed” (written by Raphael Saadiq and Day), “The Devil and I Got Up to Dance a Slow Dance” (written by Jamie Hartman, Warren Oak Felder, Coleridge Tillman and Charlie Wilson) and “Break Your Fall” (written by Warren Oak Felder and Coleridge Tillman). If she can’t crack the actress race, the song category could be a suitable solution.
Since being nominated in 2009 for both directing and producing, the first Black filmmaker to be nominated in both categories in the same year, Daniels’ actors have flirted with the Academy’s graces, but also with divisive receptions from audiences. 2012’s “The Paperboy” was too campy for many, which cost Nicole Kidman a nomination after landing nods from the Globes and SAG. In 2013, he went for prestige with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which was a financial success but too safe to get Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and the powerhouse Oprah Winfrey into their respective lineups.
Trevante Rhodes, who broke out in a big way with Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” continues to show that every Hollywood studio and filmmaker should be lining up to hand him roles as his natural charisma is always an attribute to any film. However, possibly angling for a lead actor nomination, it’ll be near impossible to crack a lineup this deep this year that involves Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Hopkins, Delroy Lindo and others.
Looking in the technical races, costumes may capture branch members’ attention and possibly even makeup and hairstyling. Kris Bowers’ potent score is worth singling out and delivers stunning work on “Bad Hair,” which is also a longshot for the shortlist.
On top of being one of the final films to be released in the eligibility period, the film could be the “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” surprise of the year. A screenplay nomination for Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapts the novel by Johann Hari, may not have the passionate support to zip past contenders like “One Night in Miami.” In addition, it also lacks the narrative zest for supporting players like Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence or Natasha Lyonne to make an impression.
There are still less more than two months to go until Oscar nominations are announced. There are no definitive answers to the awards race, especially in a year where people are not rubbing elbows at parties and are essentially reinventing the wheel. Observe and report is the game for now.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is scheduled to be released on Feb. 26 on Hulu.
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