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Film Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

20 April 21 words: Roshan Chandy

Andra Day literally sparkles in this moving and cinematic biopic about an American tragedy, writes Roshan Chandy...

Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Leslie Jordan
Running time: 130 minutes

Andra Day—a singer who you may not know—won a very well-deserved Golden Globe for her performance as troubled American singing icon Billie Holiday, capturing Billie’s alcoholism, her drug addiction and her depression. This is a very modern American tragedy with fashionable clothes and cinematic images despite very televisual settings.

The era is the 1940s and Billie Holiday (Day) is targeted by the government in an effort to racialize the war on drugs, aiming to stop her singing the song Strange Fruitwhich was controversial for its lyrics. This film charts Holiday’s battle with drug and alcohol addiction and her promiscuity with men.

Andra Day’s performance is just a marvel—sexy, but also quail and vulnerable. I was also particularly moved by a scene where she hides in a corner and breaks down in tears. She captures Billie’s fragility beautifully.

The settings of this movie are very televisual: Grand Central Station and a lot of dressing rooms. But the camera makes them cinematic—it spins around Billie’s face, angling and perfecting her beauty, but never ogling. It spins around her body during the sex scenes, creating an illusion as though you are watching this on the biggest screen possible. It looks every bit as good at home as it would at the cinema.

A modern-day American tragedy

The costumes are immaculate. I loved Billie’s tiara and maxi dresses, the colour and the pearls and the golden floors. This film does a brilliant job at recreating the swinging spirit of the Forties in all its unabashed triumphs. 

It’s also a very sad story. Billie died at the hopelessly young age of 44 of cirrhosis—a downside of her much-publicised battle with the bottle. I felt like I was watching a modern-day American tragedy where the United States had truly failed this beautiful, black woman and subjected her to horrific racial abuse over a long and torturous career. It’s very sobering viewing.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday makes a great companion piece to James Erskine’s documentary Billie from last year. Both beautifully and tragically cut to the heart of this incredibly fragile American icon.

Did you know? Director Lee Daniels was hesitant to cast Andra Day in the lead role and referred her to an acting coach due to her limited experience. The coach sent Daniels a thirty-second clip of Day getting into character, which erased any doubt in his mind. “There was no acting,” Daniels told THR. “There was just being.”

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available on Sky Cinema and NOW

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