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Review: Andra Day outshines empty 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

Courtesy of Hulu


Billie Holiday was a trailblazing icon for the civil rights movement, especially when her 1939 ballad “Strange Fruit” – a song that spoke to the African American community who were afraid of being lynched – was getting substantial airtime. But in Lee Daniels’ lazy, half-hearted biopic “The United States vs Billie Holiday,” another empty awards bait contender, there’s not enough background on the prolific singer. The title suggests a snazzy drama about how the government tried to sabotage Holiday with chump charges relating to drug use and went as far to sneak an informant into her inner circle. While the latter half holds more weight than the former, “Billie Holiday” feels stuck on autopilot with Daniels pushing the film in countless different directions that it leaves out key components. Andra Day, whose 2015 anthem “Rise Up” put her on the map, comes locked and loaded with the vocal chops and screen presence any director would relish, but she’s hung out to dry with a weak, redundant screenplay that fails to capitalize on her boisterous star-power.

Already played on screen by Diana Ross and Audra McDonald, Day’s incarnation of Holiday is the most dedicated you’ll see in any given year: the way she carries her mannerisms, vocal inflection, and cadence is worthy of award chatter. But Suzan-Lori Parks’ screenplay casually breezes through important moments of Holiday’s expansive career and never divulges her bisexuality aside from a brief walk in the park.

This lack of depth is surprising considering Daniels established filmography of critical and commercial hits are keen on uplifting marginalized voices for wide audience consumption. The scarcity with which Holiday’s life is handled leaves plenty of sequences unfulfilled, including a subplot around Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) an FBI agent who had sexual relations with the singer. The relationship between Fletcher and Holiday could sustain a movie on its own and the dynamics of a Black man working for the government trying to incriminate a Black woman is an interesting hook that Daniels never explores.

Instead, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” marks another fairly conventional biopic that has rousing crowd-pleasing moments – when Day finally sings “Strange Fruit” it’s a thing of beauty – but is documented with quick montages and underdeveloped characters (Natasha Lyonne is wasted) that it never overcomes Daniels swift and tonally awkward creative decisions. In the end, “Billie Holiday” settles for an episodic approach rather than a defined, established one. There’s solace in Day’s absorbing performance, but the lack of rhythm is hard to ignore.

Grade: C

THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY debuts on Hulu Friday, February 26th


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