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The United States vs. Billie Holiday is the story of the F.B.I.’s targeted plot against legendary singer Billie Holiday. Based on the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari with a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, the film delves into the racism and drug usage that framed Holiday’s singing career.
Directed by Lee Daniels, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is fueled by the discussion surrounding Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit.” The song was popular and highly in demand, but its lyrical content was grim as it described the indiscriminate lynching of members of the black community. The film makes it a point that the narcotics charges against Holiday are just the actual means to suppress her voice and influence.
While the film’s focus is on Billie Holiday it tells a much larger story about the government’s attempt to suppress an entire culture. Holiday’s life is filled with seemingly friendly black faces aiming to step on her and each other to in order to get respect and a foothold on life. This is seen in Jimmy Fletcher, (Trevante Rhodes) an FBI agent looking to gather evidence against Holiday. Louis McKay (Rob Morgan) also frames Holiday in attempt gain favor with the government.
Andra Day gives a stellar performance amplifying the rage and torment of Holiday’s voice. Day’s performance is sure to launch her into more leading roles. Day nails Holiday’s singing and speech, while bringing her to life. Day is also surrounded by some dynamic supporting characters. Natasha Lyonne plays Tallulah Bankhead, an off and on love interest in Holiday’s life. Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays Roslyn, a long time friend. Lyonne is an impressive actor that commands every role she’s in. Randolph has proven to be a scene stealer in her performances in Dolemite is My Name and High Fidelity.
While there are powerful supporting actors in this film, they are not given the opportunity to shine. The United States vs. Billie Holiday should in no way be a vehicle for the supporting cast, but the relationships between these characters are important to Holiday’s persona. The audience is given scraps of these relationships and a bit more focus on them would definitely help to showcase another side of Holiday.
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