Andra Day won the Best Drama Actress award at the Golden Globes the other night for her performance in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, directed by Lee Daniels and adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks from Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream. The film depicts Billie Holiday’s years of conflict with the US government and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics as she was made one of the first casualties of the “war on drugs”, before it was even called that. This is Andra Day’s first major film role, and comes in the wake of previous portrayals of “Lady Day” by Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, and Audra McDonald in the stage and screen versions of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Day does an admirable job capturing something of Billie Holiday’s vibrato, phraseology, and intonation, and she puts a decent amount of husk into the latter part of Holiday’s singing career, when years of substance abuse, and physical and mental abuse, took their toll and distorted Holiday’s voice from brassy cornet to warped clarinet. Her acting performance is a little less impressive, being largely impersonation over inhabitation, but that’s more a problem with modern biopics at large than just this one film.
As is often the case with Lee Daniels’ films, United States is the kind of film where characters do not talk like real human beings, saying things like “it’s a starting gun for the so-called Civil Rights movement”, a sentence that only makes sense if you are already aware of the historical context within the film, which the characters in the film would not be. The film also utilizes an awkward framing device in which Billie is being interviewed by Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan), a fictional radio host, as she reflects on her career and the forces that plagued her life. (There is really no need for this framing device, but Leslie Jordan is always a delight, so it’s a wash.) United States tracks Billie from her zenith in the early 1940s to her troubled years targeted by the feds for drug use. Mixed into all of this is “Strange Fruit”, Holiday’s famous anti-lynching anthem and a song the feds believe will “incite riots”. Billie is being targeted as much for narcotics as she is for this song, which offends the white supremacist agents working under J. Edgar Hoover.
One of these men is Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He is determined to bring down Billie and not only make her an example in his aggressive campaign against drugs, but also stop her singing “Strange Fruit”. Working for him is a Black agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who gets close to Billie only to arrest her for possession. Billie expects to be sent to a hospital, “like Judy Garland”, but she is instead sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison, where she is forced to detox cold turkey. United States does an okay job of linking racism to the drug war and showing how anti-Black sentiment dictated so much narcotics policy, but it loses momentum between competing story threads with Anslinger persecuting Billie and Jimmy trying to juggle his job and his attraction to Billie. These things are not equally interesting, and they’re not handled by Daniels particularly well, so the film feels long as it drags between Holiday’s legal problems and the more personal drama between Jimmy and Billie, which increasingly feels removed from Jimmy’s role in her life as a betrayer.
Like Seberg and Judas and the Black Messiah, United States wants us to sympathize with the betrayer, but why should we? This story is about Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Fletcher is just one part of that narrative. This is nothing against Rhodes, who gives a solid performance, but is it possible to imagine a story about Billie Holiday that does not center the men in her life? Even a flashback illustrating some of her history and the harrowing emotions that she poured into “Strange Fruit” includes Jimmy following Billie like a lost puppy. Why do we keep framing biopics of icons, especially Black icons, through the lens of the betrayer? I think it all comes back to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but how we’re supposed to feel about Robert Ford is right there in the title of the film. Assassination makes no excuse for Ford, he’s portrayed as a creepy proto-celebrity stalker. More recent films of this ilk, though, want us to feel as much for the betrayer as the betrayed, especially when law enforcement is involved (“This job is so hard, you guys!”). I find it unbalanced at best to consider the betrayer and betrayed equally sympathetically in a story, and it’s becoming a real issue with icon biopics.
Perhaps Jimmy Fletcher never raised hands against Billie Holiday physically, as her string of lousy husbands did. But he knowingly harmed her in a very serious way and feeling bad about it doesn’t change the action done (nor did his efforts to be a kind of unofficial double-agent for Billie make any difference in Anslinger’s agenda against her). If anything, Jimmy Fletcher and William O’Neal (in Judas and the Black Messiah) are akin to Shakespearian fools, caught in up machinations beyond their ken but wading in anyway with disastrous results for everyone but them. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is just the latest icon biopic to equate the betrayer and the betrayed as equally important in a narrative, but they’re just not and in this case, it detracts from the complex collision of public and private turmoil that plagued Billie Holiday. Jimmy Fletcher is just one piece of that, not the whole damn pie.