I’m going to cut to the chase – Prior to seeing The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, if you asked me who Harry J. Anslinger was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. But Billie Holiday? Everyone knows who Billie Holiday is. Admittedly, I had no idea how much of a struggle the legendary jazz musician had with the United States government racializing the war on drugs, and honestly, I learnt a lot. And while the movie does get a lot right about Holiday’s life, the way the story unfolds is far from perfect.
I left this film feeling angry and somewhat unsatisfied, but it was more so due to the context and the narrative rather than the performances of the cast. It is no secret that Andra Day is phenomenal in this. Her portrayal of Billie Holiday is so powerful that it is almost scary. But minus ‘Strange Fruit’, toxic relationships and her struggle with drugs, you never really get to know who Billie Holiday is as a person. What were her likes? What were her dislikes? Apart from her poor choices with men, I don’t know.
The way the narrative unfolds, although easy to follow, is a bit of a mess. The costumes are beautiful and convincing for the period the film aims to portray, but the black and white edited scenes and the effects to make it seem like you’re watching from old school film and not digitally, that was a bit of a cringefest. This is of course, minus the real footage that is shown.
While audiences will understand the struggles that Billie went through (Day’s performance is incredible, especially for a first major role) the film never lingers long enough for the viewers to get to know Billie, to love her as a person, to relate to her, to truly feel with her in an intimate way. So, it never feels like we are going through the rollercoaster of high and hell alongside her. In The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, you feel more like a useless fly on the wall than anything else.
I wanted to feel more. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to know her childhood beforehand and chronologically. Yes, there is a scene that visits this, but it is far too brief to really hit home or invoke an emotional reaction. You could blink and that scene would be gone. I wanted to see her relationship with her mum, her struggles growing up. I expected the film to visit the time she was raped as a child. I wanted to feel empowered with her being an outspoken, fierce and talented woman of colour. I didn’t get any of these things from The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.
I do understand that the film is indeed titled The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that this film was about the disgusting past of the U.S. government and racism than the singer herself. The film is essentially a historical political essay. Ms Holiday’s journey was always going to be political; the film clearly is purposefully curated to send a message of the cultural and revolutionary shift we still need to have. But I still expected the film to celebrate Billie Holiday as a woman, and I honestly do not think it does. It lacks heart.