As the title suggests, this film depicts a heartbreaking battle: governmental abuse against the Black Civil Rights movement in the wake of Lady Day’s song “Strange Fruit”. The telling of her story through the eyes of Lee Daniels lends a more artistic tone than biographical one- but the nature of her legacy rings true- despite some flaws in its execution.
The actualization of the characters and their relationships supersede the realization of the plot in almost every way. Daniels and his cast and crew really have dedicated themselves to paying homage to the impeccable Black talent that came before them. Daniels' commitment to portraying a love story that is messy and real strives to fill the gap he feels is missing in romantic Black narratives. Andra Day, as the nominations pour in for her performance, absolutely must be acknowledged as the reason the world of this film turns. She completely transforms her speaking and singing voice, as well as her appearance, to embody Holiday. The vulnerability and tenacity she brings to her interpretation of the icon resonates days- weeks- after initially watching the film. She compels in every possible way, and delivers all the pain and trauma of Holiday’s experiences.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday adopts an empathetic gaze at how Holiday was a victim of the racialized war on drugs. The central plot revolves around the Federal Narcotics Bureau targeting Holiday’s drug addiction as grounds for arrest and prosecution so she could no longer use the stage as a platform for Civil Rights activism through her music. Soon, the film becomes entirely about drug use and her continued engagement with abusive men, only occasionally circling back to the impact that “Strange Fruit” had on American society in the 1950’s. While attempting to thoughtfully layer multiple stories, Suzan-Lori Park’s screenplay pulls at too many threads. The information being so poorly organized results in a simultaneously chaotic and aimless territory in which the plot is allowed to unfold. Because of this, many intriguing details and opportunities for development get lost in the shuffle. These aspects do, at times, make it a struggle to stay invested; but sharp, painful moments of suffering (often in the form of unadulterated, explicit violence) ground you as an active audience member- and make your blood run cold.
What separates this film from other music biopics is that it really tries to focus on Billie Holiday not only as an era-defining talent, but as a fervent activist. The use of her carefully crafted art was how she spoke about her pain, her biting lyrics expressing her suffering over the unspeakable violence, death and mistreatment of Black people that took place in the very country that revered her. The journey from beloved blues icon to being silenced and brutalized by the government is the story that gets disregarded, but the story that has so much more to give. If it had succeeded in strengthening that focus, telling the story that “Strange Fruit” itself aims to enlighten in a more disciplined way, it would have been a history-making, forcible film.