Review: ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday,’ starring Andra Day

February 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Andra Day in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Photo by Takashi Seida/Hulu)

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”

Directed by Lee Daniels

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., primarily from 1947 to 1959, the dramatic film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” features a predominantly African American cast (with some white people) who are connected in some way to legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who is the central character in the movie.

Culture Clash: Holiday’s drug addiction and her controversial civil rights song “Strange Fruit” made her a target of the FBI, which plotted to ruin her life.

Culture Audience: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a melodramatic interpretation of Holiday’s life and don’t mind if some parts of the movie are inaccurate.

Trevante Rhodes and Garrett Hedlund in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Photo byTakashi Seida/Hulu)

If people watched the 1972 movie “Lady Sings the Blues” and the 2021 movie “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” they would wonder if Billie Holiday led different lives in alternate universes. Both movies are about Holiday, but they are very different from each other. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (directed by Lee Daniels) is the more sexually explicit, more realistic version of her life, compared to director Sidney J. Furie’s “Lady Sings the Blues” (starring Diana Ross as Holiday), which presented Holiday’s life as more of a romantic fantasy that was hindered by drug addiction. However, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” even with the benefit of a stunning performance by Andra Day and gorgeous costumes, misses the mark with an uneven tone that can’t decide if it wants to be a politically driven drama, a campy drug-addict saga or a sappy romance that was fabricated for the movie.

“Lady Sings the Blues” (written by Suzanne de Passe, Chris Clark and Terence McCloy) is more of a “rags to riches” story,” since it shows Holiday’s teen years and up to the height of her fame, but before she reached middle-age and died at the age of 44 in 1959. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”(written by Suzan-Lori Parks) is more of a “riches to downfall” story, since the movie shows Holiday (portrayed by Day) as a New York City-based diva already at the height of her fame and chronicles her continued slide into self-destruction until she was on her deathbed.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has a brief flashback to Holiday’s childhood in Baltimore that shows her at 10 years old, living in a brothel and being told, against her will, that she will eventually have to service the clients. In real life, Holiday says she became a prostitute when she was 13. In “Lady Sings the Blues,” Holiday’s single mother Sadie is a live-in maid to a white family and let her daughter (whose birth name was Eleanora Fagan) spend time in the brothel that was run by a madam. However, in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” there is no such context to explain why the future Billie Holiday was living in a brothel as a child.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” aims to be a much more socially conscious movie than “Lady Sings the Blues” because it keeps hammering the point that the FBI conspired to ruin Holiday’s life, and her influential civil rights song “Strange Fruit” was the trigger. (The “Lady Sings the Blues” movie avoided pointing fingers at the FBI for Holiday’s downfall.) “Strange Fruit” (written by Abel Meeropol under the alias Lewis Allan) was released in 1939. It’s a poetically brutal commentary on racial injustice, particularly in describing the lynching of black people in the South.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has an unnecessary narrative device that opens the movie in New York City in 1957, when Holiday is giving an audio interview to Reginald Lord Devine (played by Leslie Jordan), a flamboyant journalist who seems to have been written as the epitome of a white man from the South who is willfully ignorant about racial inequality. He drawls to Holiday: “Tell me, tell me, what’s it like to be a colored woman?”

This interview scenario then leads to flashbacks of Holiday’s life, primarily from 1947 to 1954, before culminating with her death in 1959. However, the writing, direction and editing for this movie are so choppy that the flashbacks are interrupted by going back to showing the annoying Devine asking silly questions. The movie would’ve been better off without this useless plot device of Holiday looking exasperated while she doing an interview that she clearly doesn’t want to do.

When Devine asks Holiday about “Strange Fruit” and why she creates problems for herself by singing it, she replies: “Ever seen a lynching? It’s about human rights. The government forgets that sometimes. They just want me to shut up and sing ‘All of Me.'”

The movie has repetitive scenes of Holiday arguing with people (such as a manager or nightclub owner) over wanting to sing “Strange Fruit,” but she’s often overruled. And when she does sing the song on stage at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia in 1947, her performance is cut short and she’s literally carried off stage while she’s fighting the man who’s forcing her to leave. It’s a very slapstick-type of scene that looks too over-acted.

In “Lady Sings the Blues,” drug addiction was the villain. In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the FBI is an additional villain, specifically the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), who’s portrayed as ruthless, ambitious and very racist. (In case there’s any doubt that he’s racist, he uses the “n” word.)

In a 1947 government meeting in Washington, D.C., Anslinger says in some very corny dialogue: “Drugs and [a racial slur for black people] are a contamination to our great American civilization. Jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday has to be stopped.” Anslinger is such a stereotypical villain in the movie, that if his moustache had been long enough, he would’ve twirled it.

In this FBI meeting is attorney Roy Cohn (played by Damian Joseph Quinn), who would later become known as the right-hand man of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by Randy Davison) and their witch hunt against Communists. Much later in his life, Cohn was a “fixer” for many rich and famous clients, including Donald Trump. “Strange Fruit” is brought up in the meeting as a song that could incite riots, but Cohn says that trying to bust Holiday for inciting a riot would be a misdemeanor crime at worst. Cohn suggests to Anslinger that since Holiday is a well-known drug addict, it would be better to have her arrested for drugs.

And that’s why an African American FBI agent is recruited to go undercover and help the FBI arrest Holiday. His name is Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes), who ends up falling deeply in love with Holiday. In fact, their romance (which is completely exaggerated for the movie) becomes such a big part of the plot that it looks very fake, especially when Fletcher ends up shooting heroin with Holiday and having shared hallucinations with her. Viewers will be rolling their eyes at this nonsense more than a junkie who’s high on drugs.

Another ridiculous thing about the movie is how in almost every performance of Holiday’s that’s shown, Fletcher and usually Anslinger are also in the audience, as if they have nothing better to do with their time than stalk her. Fletcher is portrayed as someone who’s woefully inept at being undercover. He’s also ordered to follow her on tour, but it isn’t long before Fletcher doesn’t even try to be professional, and he’s partying with Holiday and her entourage like a pathetic hanger-on.

Holiday’s bisexuality, which she was open about in real life, is briefly hinted at in scenes with Holiday and actress Tallulah Bankhead (played by Natasha Lyonne), who is only identified in the movie as a “close friend.” The well-known affair that these two women had in real life is toned down for the movie. When Anslinger interrogates Bankhead and asks her point-blank if the stories are true that she and Holiday are lovers, she doesn’t really answer the question. When journalist Devine mentions Bankhead in his awkward interview that keeps disrupting the movie’s already ragged flow, Holiday gets defensive and sidesteps the question.

As for the other lovers in Holiday’s life, the ones portrayed in the movie are two who were also her managers: John Levy (played by Tone Bell) and Louis McKay (played by Rob Morgan), who would become her second husband in 1957. (In real life, Levy was white, so the movie did a racial swap with this character.) And briefly depicted is Holiday’s first husband James Monroe (played by Erik LaRay Harvey), a pimp who became a trombonist in her band.

Monroe, Levy and McKay are all portrayed as selfish, abusive leeches, which many people who were close to Holiday say was how these three men were like in real life. It’s more realistic than how McKay (played by Billy Dee Williams) was depicted in “Lady Sings the Blues,” as her only steady lover and as a caring man who never abused her and never took advantage of her. To its credit, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” doesn’t try to make it look like Holiday’s love life was that simple.

In fact, all of the men in Holiday’s life are depicted as using her in some way. Fletcher, who’s portrayed as the only “good man” in her love life, started out as using Holiday to further his career with the FBI. Her closest “friends” are on her payroll, including her saxophonist Lester Young (played by Tyler James Williams), who’s credited in real life with giving her the nickname Lady Day, and her trumpet player/drug dealer Joe Guy (played by Melvin Gregg). She also has two sassy personal assistants named Roslyn (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Miss Freddy (played by Miss Lawrence), who are the “court jesters” of this movie, since they provide most of the comic relief.

There’s a comedic scene that doesn’t work very well where Roslyn and Miss Freddy are invited to an elaborate funeral because Holiday has told them there’s been a death in her family. The death is shown to be serious enough that Holiday cancelled one of her shows. Roslyn and Miss Freddy go to the funeral, only to find out that it’s for Holiday’s dead Chihuahua. It’s definitely something that was fabricated for the movie, if only for the fact that planning this type of funeral would be hard to keep a secret from a celebrity’s personal assistants.

Holiday’s drug arrest in Philadelphia in 1947, as well as her subsequent imprisonment for one year, are covered in a rushed series of montages. It’s followed by a standout scene of her 1948 sold-out comeback performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. It was a breakthrough performance for a jazz artist at Carnegie Hall, which at the time was a venue for classical and opera music.

The FBI’s targeting of Holiday is unquestionably portrayed as racist harassment in this movie. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” shows other ways that Holiday was discriminated against because of her race. These scenes show how, even with her star status, Holiday could not escape from the systemic racism that she encountered in her everyday life.

There’s a scene where Holiday and Bankhead go to Bankhead’s apartment building, but the African American elevator attendant (played by Furly Mac) refuses to let Holiday use the lobby’s elevator because it’s the building’s policy that black people have to use the service elevator in the back. Even though Bankhead offers to take the service elevator with her, Holiday throws a fit and leaves the building in a huff, while the pain of this discrimination is on her face as she stands by herself outside. In another scene, Holiday is scheduled to perform at a major live radio broadcast, only to find out before she’s ready to take the stage that she’s been replaced by a white female singer because of the “Strange Fruit” controversy.

However, the movie falls off the rails around the time Holiday was arrested for drug possession in San Francisco in 1949. The way that the trial is depicted is fairly absurd, and it’s where the movie starts to drown in the schmaltz of Holiday and Fletcher’s romance that was contrived for the movie. Fletcher is depicted as willing to ruin his career, just to be with Holiday, when that didn’t happen in real life. Fun fact though: Fletcher’s colleague Agent Sam Williams is played by Evan Ross, who is one of Diana Ross’ sons.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is based on Johann Hari’s 2015 non-fiction book “Chasing the Scream,” which details the impact of America’s “war on drugs” and how people of color have been singled out more than white people as targets for drug arrests. Holiday’s troubles with the law are depicted as a precursor to the “war on drugs” that officially began when the Drug Enforcement Administration was formed in 1973 under then-U.S. president Richard Nixon.

However, this serious message of the film is cheapened by some dumb comedic scenes, dreadful dialogue and the unconvincing love affair between Holiday and Fletcher, who starts to romance her even more even after she’s found out that he works for the FBI. By all accounts in real life, Holiday preferred her men to be “bad boys” with shady reputations. Any sexual involvement with Fletcher would not have blossomed into the type of relationship where they’re making goo-goo eyes at each other while on a rowboat (as shown in one of the movie’s scenes), and he openly becomes her “tour boyfriend” while he’s on duty with the FBI.

Paramount Pictures was originally going to release “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and it’s easy to see why the studio passed on it. The movie needed a massive rewrite and more cohesive direction, so that it would be more of an immersive experience instead of a series of scattershot, uneven scenes that sometimes have awkward transitions. That doesn’t mean the film is a complete disaster, but it should have been much better, considering all the talented people involved.

The high points of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” are the electrifying performances on stage. Day (who’s a fantastic singer) does all of her own vocals in the movie. Some of the songs heard in the movie are “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness,” “God Bless the Child,” “Lover Man,” “I Cried for You,” “Them There Eyes,” “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” “All of Me” and “Lady Sings the Blues.” And there’s a harrowing, impactful sequence of Holiday witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, which leads to her centerpiece performance of “Strange Fruit.”

Day brings a raspy, world-weary yet edgy quality to her overall performance as Holiday that is more authentic than Diana Ross’ interpretation of Holiday as an emotionally wounded waif in “Lady Sings the Blues.” (Ross got an Oscar nomination out of it.) The costume design and production design are well-done in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” However, all of it is not enough to overcome all the tonal misfires in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which won’t stand as the definitive Billie Holiday movie. For a more accurate and better movie about Holiday’s life, watch the documentary “Billie” instead.

Hulu will premiere “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” on February 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Burden,’ starring Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Hébert, Usher Raymond and Tom Wilkinson

February 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Taylor Gregory, Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whitaker, Dexter Darden, Crystal Fox and Garrett Hedlund in “Burden” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“Burden” (2020) 

Directed by Andrew Heckler

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the small town of Laurens, South Carolina, this dramatic film has a racially diverse cast of African American and white characters portraying the poor and working-class.

Culture Clash: The movie tells the story about racial tensions and hate crimes that get worse when local Ku Klux Klansmen open a KKK shop/museum in the town, and one of the KKK members becomes a former racist.

Culture Audience: “Burden” will appeal primarily to people who like to see dramatic retellings of stories about people involved with civil rights and fighting racism.

Garrett Hedlund and Tom Wilkinson in “Burden” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

There’s been a mini-trend of “based on a true story” feature films about white racists who change their bigoted ways of thinking, by having unlikely friendships with black people. In the movie, one black person in particular makes the difference in reforming the white racist. We saw this same premise in 2018’s Oscar-winning “Green Book,” 2019’s “The Best of Enemies” and now in 2020’s “Burden.”

Written and directed by Andrew Heckler (his first feature-length film), “Burden” won’t be nominated for any Oscars, but it’s a solid film that has a top-notch cast, even though the movie can veer into well-worn clichés. The movie’s timeless message is more important than the recycled way that much of the movie was filmed.

Taking place in the small town of Laurens, South Carolina, in the mid-to-late 1990s, the story is told mainly from the perspective of the title character, Mike Burden (played by Garrett Hedlund), a self-described “redneck” troublemaker who was orphaned at an early age. The movie begins in the spring of 1996, when Mike (who’s in his 20s) is making his living at a repo company, which is not-so-subtly called Plantation Repossession. He also has a long history of being a criminal. Most of his antisocial behavior consists of violent hate crimes, because he’s a longtime member of the Ku Klux Klan and has risen to the title of Grand Dragon.

Mike has a mentor/father figure in local Klan leader Tom Griffin (played by Tom Wilkinson), who is grooming Mike to be his successor. Mike is such a part of Tom’s family that he’s become like a brother to Tom’s son Clint (played by Austin Hébert), who works with Mike at Plantation Repossession. Tom’s wife Hazel (played by Tess Harper) is also a white supremacist who’s proud to have her family in the KKK.

Tom, Mike and other local Klansman have opened up a storefront in town called the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum, despite objections from many of the citizens in Laurens and beyond. One of the most vocal protestors is Rev. David Kennedy (played by Forest Whitaker), the leader of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Kennedy is a devoted family man to his wife Janice (played by Crystal Fox) and teenage son Kelvin (played by Dexter Darden).

Meanwhile, the movie shows two other people who eventually play a role in Mike Burden’s transformation. One is a single mother named Judy (played by Andrea Riseborough), who first meets Mike when he and Clint come over to her house to repossess items from her live-in boyfriend, who’s an unemployed former NASCAR driver and a heavy drinker. The other person is Mike’s former schoolmate Clarence Brooks (played by Usher Raymond, also known as Grammy-winning singer Usher), who encounters Mike and Clint when they go over to Clarence’s house to repossess his television.

Even though Clarence tells them his sob story about being laid off due to company cutbacks and asks the repo men to give him a break, Mike and Clint are unmoved. Clarence tries to appeal to Mike’s memories of when they were friends as young kids, but Mike somewhat smugly tells Clarence that he can’t make an exception for him or else he and Clint will lose their jobs. While they’re far enough away so Clarence can’t hear them, Clint and Mike make a racist comment about Clarence being on welfare.

The next time Mike and Judy see each other, she’s at the racetrack with her elementary-school-aged son Franklin (played by Taylor Gregory). Mike and Judy lock eyes in the way that people do in movies when you know that they’re going to fall in love. Even though Judy has broken up with her deadbeat boyfriend, she’s somewhat reluctant to date Mike because she knows about his bad reputation. But Mike is very charming and polite to her and Franklin, so eventually she gives in, and they start dating and fall in love.

Before Mike goes though his transformation, much of the story shows the dichotomy of his personality. One the one hand, he’s a hard-working employee and a romantic boyfriend to Judy. On the other hand, he participates in vicious crimes against people who aren’t white or Christian. He and his KKK cronies regularly beat up black people. And they’re the kind of racists who, when they’re driving in a truck and see a black girl walking down a deserted road by herself, they urinate on her and laugh as they pass by.

Mike’s mentor Tom thinks so highly of him that he tells everyone at a local KKK chapter meeting that he’s signing over the store/museum deed to Mike. What Mike does with that real-estate deed after he leaves the Klan becomes the center of a lawsuit that’s depicted in the last third of the film.

But before that happens, Judy makes it clear that she despises that Mike is in the KKK, and she starts spending more time working with Rev. Kennedy and the other people in his congregation who want to shut down the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum. She eventually helps Mike see the error of his ways, and he leaves the Klan.

But there are consequences, as Mike becomes the target of his former KKK comrades’ hatred. He loses his job and eventually his home. He gets beaten up by his former Klan buddies. Mike eventually turns to Rev. Kennedy for help.

Rev. Kennedy offers Mike, Judy and Franklin a place to stay at his home, which is an offer that his wife Janice objects to at first because she doesn’t want her family to be put in danger. The reverend’s son Kelvin is also upset by letting Mike and his new family into the Kennedy home and what it could mean for the Kennedy family. The danger is very real, since Clarence gets beaten up by KKK members because of Clarence’s association with Mike.

As the story unfolds, there are scenes that predictably happen. Judy’s son Franklin and Clarence’s son Duane (played by Devin Bright) become friends in a déjà vu of Mike and Clarence’s childhood friendship. The controversy over the KKK museum gets national attention, bringing Jesse Jackson (played by an actor) to town for one of the protests. Mike’s baptism (by Rev. Kennedy, of course), which takes place at a lake, shows a reformed Mike emerging from the water in slow-motion. It’s filmed with the kind of adoration that’s usually reserved for “miracle” scenes.

“Burden” sometimes gets hokey, but the good intentions outweigh the sometimes overly sentimental direction. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat that turning around a violent bigot’s life can be complicated, messy and dangerous. But the movie shows that things can improve for people who used to be enemies of each other if they have enough compassion, knowledge and resources to help people change for the better.

The former location of the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum has now been renamed the Echo Theater. According to a press release from 101 Studios (the U.S. distributor for “Burden”), 101 Studios and the New Baptist Missionary Church “are partnering to rebuild the space so that it becomes a center of positivity for the first time in its history. National and local partners, such as Lowe’s, are working with 101 Studios and the New Baptist Missionary Church to contribute supplies and materials to the renovation efforts.”

101 Studios will release “Burden” in select U.S. cinemas on February 28, 2020.