The gifted and mercurial Lee Daniels, director of “Precious,” is one of the only filmmakers I can think of who would dare to drop a badass-diva moment of Billie Holiday violently slapping her spouse into the middle of an otherwise giddy celebrity-singer-on-tour montage. In Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Billie, played with glamorous, blowsy, dagger-eyed force by Andra Day, has had her share of ups and downs — on and off heroin (mostly on); a stint in prison; a despicably unwarranted and relentless crackdown on her life and career by the U.S. government; a succession of romantic partners who are smooth-talking scoundrels — or, in one case, too nice and upstanding for her.
But Billie claws her way through every setback, to the point that she’s on a glittering concert tour of Europe. In the montage, we see her up onstage, in a Paris restaurant, and in a ritzy hotel suite with her domineering husband (Rob Morgan), who tries to grab the mink coat off her, so she gives him a smack. Is Daniels making light of this? Not at all. He’s merely demonstrating that for Billie, who spends her life surrounded by forces that want to control her, it’s just another day.
Billie Holiday, the tempestuous, high-living jazz legend who burned herself out at 44, is a great role for any actor — the highs and lows, the willowy trumpet-slide voice, the bluesy morose fierceness. And part of what makes it a great role is that Holiday was such a revolutionary artist, and such a gutsy addiction-prone life-on-the-precipice human being, that just about the only way to approach her is with a staggering intensity of dramatic commitment.
That’s what Diana Ross did in “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), giving an all-stops-out performance in a film that was way too ramshackle and fuddy-duddy for its own good. And that’s what Andra Day does, too, in the bolder and more compelling though still flawed “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
In this sprawling, lacerating, but at times emotionally wayward biopic set during the last decade of Holiday’s life, Day gives Billie a voice of pearly splendor that, over time, turns raspy and hard, and we see the same thing happening to Billie inside. She’s a survivor with the fearsome glint of someone who has seen it all, and sees through it all. Day gives her a hellfire beneath the ravagement; her Billie gets beaten up by life, but won’t bow down. And onstage, the great singer of “Rise Up” simply becomes Billie Holiday, in her signature orchid, with a presence as sinuous as her voice, which she plays like a jazz instrument, stylizing emotions into a sound that pierces and caresses.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” opens with a ghastly historic photograph of a Black man being lynched. Holiday rose to fame in no small part because of her nightclub performances of “Strange Fruit,” a poetic and spellbinding evocation of the horror of lynching — but from the start it was a dangerous song, and the story of “Strange Fruit” is at the heart of the movie. The way Billie performs it, it’s not just a haunting number; it’s a news bulletin, a work of the fiercest possible political art. That’s what makes the song (and her) a sensation, and why racist forces within the government, led by J. Edgar Hoover, decide that they have to shut it down.
The movie, written by the playwright and novelist Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”), jams a lot of the overheated drama you’re expecting into the first half hour. It’s 1947, and even the officers of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led by the angry weasel Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), concede that they can’t arrest a performer for singing a song. But they know that Billie is a heroin addict, so they decide to go after her on drugs. The movie is matter-of-fact when it comes to shooting up; it shows us how Billie hides her track marks and functions (rather ably) from high to high. (She also likes to use before going onstage, as many jazz musicians of the time did.) She’s married to her manager (Erik LaRay Harvey), who treats her like property, but she forms a bond with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), a veteran who keeps showing up in uniform, hanging out backstage, all warm supportive smiles. He’s drop-dead handsome and sincere, but he’s a touch mysterious and seems a little too good to be true. Which he is.
Arrested for using narcotics, Billie spends a year in the slammer, gets clean, and at that point — right? — it’s up to her to turn her life around. Yet Daniels’ view of Billie is more complex, more radical than that. Billie chooses to stay on the smack, but the pain she’s exorcising comes from circumstances that are beyond scalding. (We see glimpses of her childhood, with her prostitute mother trying to turn her out when she’s just 10.) Back from jail, she’s popular enough to pack Carnegie Hall (and her performance there is a triumph), but she’s denied her cabaret card, so outside of Philly and Washington, D.C., she can’t play in any club, which effectively chokes off her career. Her punishment for singing “Strange Fruit” is to have her life as an entertainer placed in chains. She forms an alliance with John Levy (Tone Bell), a domineering smoothie who owns Club Ebony in New York, and who has paid off the cops to let her sing. But as she discovers, that’s a Faustian bargain too.
Lee Daniels’ theme, in a way, is treachery — political treachery and personal, and the way they come together. Billie Holiday was betrayed by a series of men who were seductive, exploitative, sometimes just cruel. She was betrayed by a racist government that cracked down on her for being a social-political artist. And she was betrayed by herself, when she couldn’t resist the temptation of heroin. But Billie, through all of this, refuses to stop singing “Strange Fruit,” and another way to put that is that her defiant sense of Black power is intrinsic to her identity and her downfall.
This is gripping stuff, to be sure, yet the movie, volatile as it is, lacks a full dramatic center and the momentum that would flow out of it. That should probably have come, in part, from the performance of Trevante Rhodes as the ambiguous savior Jimmy Fletcher, but Rhodes, who played Chiron in the last segment of “Moonlight,” is at once winning and rather passive; given that Jimmy is the second biggest role in the film, he’s too much of an emotional bystander. Day’s performance, on the other hand, attains a searing force in the final hospital sequence, when Billie has been stripped of everything but her pride, which unlike her will not die.