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’s 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: ‘The Argument,’ starring Dan Fogler, Emma Bell, Danny Pudi, Maggie Q, Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Fogler and Emma Bell in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Argument”

Directed by Robert Schwartzman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the romantic comedy “The Argument” features a racially diverse cast (white, black and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A playwright and his actress girlfriend, with the help of some of their friends and random strangers, recreate an argument that the couple had to determine who was correct in the argument.

Culture Audience: “The Argument” will primarily appeal to people who like over-the-top, fast-paced comedies with many unrealistic moments but enough wacky sensibilities to keep people watching to see how it all ends.

Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The absurdist romantic comedy “The Argument” will test the patience of many viewers who are looking for a more conventional way that love and relationships are depicted in the story’s plot. The movie suffers when the “repeat loop” part of the story is focused only on the six main characters. But “The Argument” is at its best during “casting session/script reading” scenes in the last third of the movie, when random strangers are introduced to the main characters and turn the movie into many laugh-out-loud moments that are sly commentaries about ego posturing and stereotypes in relationships.

Directed with a madcap pace by Robert Schwartzman and written by Zac Stanford, “The Argument” (which takes place in Los Angeles) centers on an artistic couple named Jack (played by Dan Fogler) and Lisa (played by Emma Bell), who live together in a modest Hollywood home. Jack is a playwright/screenwriter, and Lisa is an actress. They’ve been dating each other for three years.

It’s revealed later in the movie that Jack and Lisa met through a fairly obscure horror movie that Jack wrote called “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Lisa had a small background role as a zombie in the movie. Jack’s most recent project is an independent play called “Wolfgang,” which has Lisa as the leading female role of Constanze, the wife of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play has a modern comedic tone to it, and it’s recently ended its run at a small theater. Based on the number of people in the audience for the last show, the play’s attendance was fairly good, but not great.

The biggest problem that Jack had with the play is how Lisa and the vain actor who was cast as Mozart seemed just a little too flirtatious with each on stage and off stage. The actor’s name is Paul (played by Tyler Christopher Williams), and Jack is jealous because Paul is younger and better-looking than Jack is. Jack’s suspicion that Lisa and Paul are sexually attracted to each other is a nagging thought that he’s kept to himself, but it later explodes in messy and uncomfortable ways in other parts of the story.

Now that the play is over, Jack thinks he and Lisa won’t have to deal with Paul anymore. After the last night of “Wolfgang,” Jack plans to have a small cocktail party at his and Lisa’s home. Jack has invited his and Lisa’s two closest friends—married couple Brett and Sarah—to celebrate.

Brett (played by Danny Pudi) is Jack’s eager-to-please literary agent. Sarah (played by Maggie Q) is an entertainment lawyer with an icy demeanor and a photographic memory. Jack has another intention for the party, which is pretty obvious in the message that he sends to Brett and Sarah: Jack is going to propose to Lisa.

When Sarah and Brett show up for the party, Brett is happy to be there, but Sarah seems very uninterested. She explains that she has to get up early in the morning because she has an important contract negotiation meeting the next day. Sarah was the attorney who negotiated the overseas rights to “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night,” but she’s frustrated that Jack hasn’t been a lucrative client for Brett.

Sarah blames Jack and Brett for Jack not being able to get much work as a writer. None of Jack’s screenplays has sold since “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Sarah thinks that Jack isn’t very talented and that Brett isn’t a great agent. By contrast, Brett is in awe of Jack and isn’t ready to give up on him so easily. At one point during the party, Brett gushes in Jack’s presence that Jack “isn’t just a great writer … he’s a genius.”

The party is interrupted by two guests whom Jack did not expect: Paul and his ditzy Australian girlfriend Trina (played by Cleopatra Coleman), who soon finds out that she’s not the only one who’s suspected that there’s been sexual tension between Paul and Lisa. Jack is very surprised to see Paul and Trina at his door, but he lets them in because he doesn’t want to be rude and because he finds out that Lisa invited them.

Jack takes Lisa aside for a private conversation in their dining room, and they briefly argue about Paul being at the party. (Observant viewers might notice that the dining room walls in the movie have posters of Schwartzman’s first two movies that he directed: 2016’s “Dreamland” and 2018’s “The Unicorn.”) Lisa insists that she told Jack in advance that Paul would be there. Jack is equally insistent that Lisa never told him, because if she had, he would’ve remembered. They reach a stalemate but agree that Paul might as well stay at the party.

As the party goes on, Jack gets more and more irritated because Lisa and Paul keep re-enacting flirtatious and sexually suggestive scenes from the play in front of everyone. Lisa and Paul think it’s hilarious, but Jack obviously doesn’t. Meanwhile, Sarah looks very bored, Brett tries to keep things friendly with everyone, and Trina starts drinking enough alcohol to get tipsy and overly talkative. Trina mentions that she and Paul (who has a day job as a fitness instructor) got together as a couple because she signed up for one of his fitness classes, in the hopes that he would notice her and want to date her.

It turns out that Trina is a big fan of “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night” and she actually remembers Lisa’s role in the film. Trina gushes like a fangirl about the movie, which endears her to Jack and Lisa. However, Paul continues to get on Jack’s nerves. When Jack serves a charcuterie board at the party, Paul says he can’t eat almost anything that’s served at the party because he’s a vegan and he’s on a strict diet for a fitness commercial that he’s about to film. Jack is also baking an apple pie, which he plans to serve as dessert.

As the night wears on, Paul and Trina grow more uncomfortable with Lisa and Paul’s flirtatious shenanigans in front of everyone. Jack starts rambling about Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival who was famously jealous of Mozart’s talent, fame and accolades. Lisa makes a seemingly innocuous remark that Jack “isn’t really comfortable with the word ‘genius.'”

Jack interprets the comment to mean that Lisa doesn’t think that Jack isn’t very smart, so he shouts at her, “That’s not funny!” The argument between Jack and Lisa escalates to the point when Jack ends up taking the apple pie out of the oven and throws it on the ground. And the party abruptly ends.

The next morning, Jack and Lisa are in bed and they continue to argue about what happened the previous night. “I wish I could redo the whole night so you could see how wrong you are!” Lisa shouts. Jack says the same thing to her. And then they have an “aha” moment and decide to recreate the party and have the guests decide if Jack or Lisa was the one was in the wrong.

The middle section of “The Argument” is a little hard to take because of the shrill and annoying ways that the party is recreated. Because the movie makes it clear from the beginning that it’s an absurdist comedy, viewers will have to suspend their disbelief that Jack and Lisa’s party guests have nothing better to do with their time than go through with these ridiculous re-enactments. Trina shows up hung over, and she reluctantly agrees to get drunk again for every re-enactment. Jack even goes as far as preparing the same food over and over again every time they do a re-enactment.

Of course, the re-enactments don’t go smoothly because no one (except for Sarah, who has a photographic memory) can remember exactly how they acted and what they said the first time the party happened. Because everyone goes “off-script” at one point or another, it leads to more tension and arguments.

Sarah’s jaded attitude becomes even more apparent when Trina says being an entertainment lawyer must be glamorous, and Sarah’s deadpan response is, “It’s just a job. I don’t even like movies.” Eventually, Sarah gets fed up with the re-enactments and leaves.

“The Argument” finally starts to improve in the last third of the movie, when the party guests find out that Jack has put an ad on Craiglist to get actors (whose character names are not revealed in the movie) to come to his and Lisa’s home and to portray the party guests during these re-enactments, with the original party guests (except for Sarah) in attendance. Jack has even written a script, which is heavily skewed with his biased perspective.

The actors who answered the Craigslist ad have been told that it’s supposed to be an audition/read-through, with Jack being the one to decide who will play which role. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Jack casts the best-looking “hunky” guy of the auditionees to portray Jack, who’s written as the hero of the story. (The role of Actor Jack is played by Mark Ryder.)

Actor Trina is an ultra-liberal, ultra-politically correct African American activist (played by Marielle Scott), who over-exaggerates and bungles the real Trina’s Australian accent, which offends Trina. Actor Lisa (played by Charlotte McKinney) is a big-breasted blonde who has her bikini photos on hand, while Lisa is offended that Jack wants a “bimbo” to portray her.

Actor Brett (played by Karan Brar) pretty much agrees with everyone, while the real Brett is offended that he’s being portrayed as a pushover without a mind of his own. Meanwhile, since Sarah isn’t there, Jack decides that Actor Brett can use a sock puppet to portray Sarah. Actor Paul (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a loudmouth wannabe rapper (who wears gold chains), which offends the real Paul, who’s nothing like this walking racial stereotype, but Actor Paul ends up upstaging everyone in the room.

What Jack has written in the script is read aloud by the auditionees to hilarious results, because it reveals Jack’s perceptions and opinions of everyone at the party. If this “script reading” part of the plot had been put earlier in the movie, the quality of “The Argument” would have been much higher.

Fogler and Coleman handle the slapstick scenes fairly well, while Williams makes great use of facial expressions. All of the actors playing the “auditionees” are very good and bring much-needed spark to the movie. Stewart-Jarrett is the movie’s biggest scene stealer, since he’s easily the funniest part of this movie, whose comedic scenes are hit and miss.

Fogler, Bell, Pudi, Q, Williams and Coleman are talented, but the way the characters are written tend to become one-note caricatures by the middle of the film. Having other actors come into the story to portray those characters is a clever send-up that works well. The discomfort that the real Jack, Lisa, Brett, Paul and Trina feel at seeing how other people portray them is actually funny, whereas the original argument between Lisa and Jack wasn’t that funny. There’s an almost British sensibility to this “script within a script” parody.

Because director Schwartzman moves the pace of “The Argument” along fairly quickly, it’s easier to take the cringeworthy aspects of the movie. For example, some of the people in “The Argument” over-act—and not in a good way that was intended by the screenplay. And there’s some physical comedy that could have been choreographed better.

The Jack character can be very grating with his “control freak” insecurities and insistence on always being right. Lisa is also irritating with her tendency to be self-absorbed and not very empathetic to other people’s feelings. Some viewers might find it hard to root for this couple.

“The Argument” can best be appreciated when the main characters (and their flaws) are put up to a proverbial mirror and they see how complete strangers (who are wannabe actors) perceive and act out their personalities. Sarah eventually finds out that Jack cast her as a sock puppet, and so her reaction (which isn’t as funny as it could’ve been) is also part of the movie’s plot. If people are willing to keep watching “The Argument” until the “script reading” scenes, it will be worth the wait, because those scenes redeem what could have been a completely annoying movie.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Argument” on digital and VOD on September 4, 2020.

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