‘United States vs. Billie Holiday’ review: Andra Day shines in OK film

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Running time: 130 minutes. Not rated. On Hulu.

Here it is: Your annual average biopic boosted by a sensational leading performance. 

This year’s “The Iron Lady” or “Judy” is “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” director Lee Daniels’ movie about the celebrated singer of “Strange Fruit.” The stunner is Andra Day, a musician who is almost totally new to acting. Could have fooled me.

That freshness enriches her Lady Day, who’s been played before by none other than Diana Ross, as well as stage star Audra McDonald. Day brings a special naturalism to the role — her performance lacks the oversized tics and stagey gravitas that’s so common in films about celebrities. She’s not caked in makeup or prosthetics, and her character’s rasp sounds like she was born with it. Day’s Billie is frail, but powerful, and her singing voice melts you.

But Day’s performance is a beacon surrounded by mediocrity and mismanagement. The film’s message is plainly clear — that Holiday’s drug and alcohol consumption were seized upon by an opportunistic FBI to punish her for “Strange Fruit,” a song about a southern lynching that she refused to stop singing. The storytelling, though, is lazy.

The movie takes place over at least 10 years, but the passage of time is confounding in Suzan-Lori Parks’ script. Were it not for Day’s prison stint in the middle, a person could be forgiven for thinking the film spans just a few months. It does the story no favors that it is mostly set in small, dimly lit interiors that all look the same.

The first one is a little office in 1957, two years before Holiday’s death, where she is being interviewed by a shameless journalist named Reginald Lord Devine, who steers her toward bombshell admissions. The interviewer, whose existence I can find no evidence of, is played by Leslie Jordan in the same clownish manner as his character Beverley Leslie from “Will & Grace,” with a hairdo that looks like a bath sponge. The role is small, but so is a mosquito.

Holiday then takes us to the old New York nightclub Cafe Society, where audiences pack the house to see her while cops wait in the back for her to perform her controversial signature number. She does, and Federal Bureau of Narcotics honcho Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) is incensed.

“This jazz is the devil’s music! That’s why this Holiday woman has got to be stopped,” he says as if auditioning for a villain role in “Scooby-Doo.”

So, Anslinger sends an ambitious black agent — a rarity back then — to spy on Holiday by pretending to be a fan. But Jimmy Fletcher (an unusually bland Trevante Rhodes) mixes work with pleasure, and they eventually develop a romance. Fletcher’s ongoing relationship with the singer, even after he nearly destroys her life with his betrayal, is fascinating, but the film doesn’t go deep enough into it.

Watching Holiday succumb to drugs and booze is sad — she died of cirrhosis of the liver at just 44 years old, handcuffed to a hospital bed — but the film stays uplifting because of her enduring passion for music. Her insistence on singing her signature tune despite a despite a hurricane of adversity is inspiring.

That song helped make Holiday a star, and this movie will do the same for Day.

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