‘Based On A True Story’ is a common phrase that pop ups around Oscar season, with several of this year’s contenders being adaptations of real life events. Lee Daniels, who shot to fame with 2009’s indie hit Precious, hopes to repeat that success with a biopic of the one and only Billie Holiday.
The United States Vs Billie Holiday tells the true story of the government’s targeting of popular jazz singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day), who packs out music halls with her popular songs, including the incredible protest song Strange Fruit. Fearing the song may become an anthem for the growing Civil Rights Movement, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics target her drug use as an excuse to haul her through the system. Facing institutionalised bigotry and her personal demons, Holiday fights to keep her voice from being silenced.
The test for any biopic is the central performance, and Day excels in the spotlight. From Holiday’s signature rasp to small mannerisms, she could stand up against footage of the real artist. Incredibly, it is the first substantial acting role for the Grammy Award-nominated singer, yet she brings a depth to the part that would be the envy of the most veteran performers. Without saying too much, she projects a figure who was just about surviving the many abuses life had thrown at her.
Frustratingly, the film wrapped around this performance is messy. There’s no edge to Daniels’ vision, creating a softly lit 40s story that is more akin to a made-for-TV drama than an award hopeful. Strangely, there’s also a lot of weight put on her romance with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the undercover government informant who eventually betrayed her. Their relationship is a matter of speculation, and arguably undermines much of what Holiday had to endure in her life. Anyone who watched last year’s compelling documentary Billie will feel like a lot has been left on the table.
Even if the direction is predictable, Holiday’s trials are still shocking. From big courtroom drama to small moments, such as being denied entry to a hotel elevator by a black porter who fears losing his job, illustrate the complex issues facing the community at the time (many of which still exist today). There are also interesting appearances from Garrett Hedlund as the racist leader of the government sting, and Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, Holiday’s lover and an aspect of her life that, while acknowledged, isn’t explored to any great depth.
The United States Vs Billie Holiday had a rich and fascinating story to adapt, so it’s disappointing that the end result should be so average. We can only hope that the excellent Day gets to play the legend again in her career, but even if this is the only example she has done Lady Day proud.
The United States Vs Billie Holiday is available on Sky Cinema from 27 February.