I was already working on this review when Andra Day won her Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. I’ve got to say, I’m glad she won. She deserved to win. She deserved, as my Panamanian grandmother used to say, to “get her flowers while [she] can still smell them.” Unfortunately, that can’t really be said for the woman to whom she owes so much, the woman to whom she owes her own stage name — Andra Day… Lady Day… No coincidence as Day confirmed on Good Morning America — the woman she depicts with unflinching honesty and breathtaking vulnerability in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
After watching the film, I did something I rarely do. I went immediately to these here innanets to see what others had to say about the movies. You read that right. I said “movies,” plural. See, I felt conflicted, a familiar though uncomfortable state for this Black man, the entire time I watched this film, directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler, Empire) and written by Suzan-Lori Parks (Girl 6, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Native Son). On the one hand, I enjoyed scenes Parks penned, moments that brought to life the larger than life events in the life of the larger than life Billie Holiday.
It was clear that Daniels, as a director, knew what he wanted to capture visually in many of those moments. In a pivotal courtroom scene, for example, he manages to surround his main character with people while conveying her crushing loneliness; he maintains the dual truths that she is the most important person present and, simultaneously, the least powerful.
The problem, though, is that The United States vs. Billie Holiday is not quite the legal drama the title promises. (I mean, I can’t be the only one who saw that title and immediately thought of The People vs. Larry Flynt.)
No, it’s not really a legal drama… It’s kind of a legal love story biopic drug cautionary tale historical fiction drama comedy. And to quote another Daniels film and a GIF that works overtime in my online communications:
I hate to write that. I really do. I don’t mean that the way your least favorite aunt “hates to be the one to have to say” the really mean thing about your haircut she is clearly dying to say. I actually and honestly hate to say that this film, in its ambitious attempt to do so much, falls short of doing fully what I needed it to do most, to leave me feeling after two hours and ten minutes that I truly know Billie Holiday in a way I did not when I pressed play.
And I hate to say that because I’m Black. And Lee Daniels is Black… and it’s hard as hell to be a Black director. I should know; I am one. And Suzan-Lori Parks is Black… and it’s hard as hell to be a Black screenwriter. I should know; I am one. And Billie Holiday is Black… and it’s hard as hell to be a Black woman. That one I actually don’t know from personal experience, but I’m feeling pretty damn confident about saying it’s pretty damn hard. I guess we could ask Holiday, just like Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) does, with all the cheery curiosity one would bring to a conversation about Paris in the spring, “What’s it like to be a colored woman?”
Let’s not, though, because Ms. Holiday was not amused as she slung back a question of her own, “Would you ask Doris Day a question like that?”
It was that moment that finally–it took me three viewings to solve the riddle–unlocked for me what I was bothered by, why I couldn’t just join the crowd and seize on the imperfections of the admittedly imperfect The United States vs. Billie Holiday. When it comes to life’s horrors, among them violent sex and IV drug use, there’s a line between depicting them honestly and reveling in them voyeuristically. Daniels, as he has been accused of doing in the past, does cross that line in moments, in my opinion. However, giving credit where credit is due, he also elicits and captures a performance from Andra Day, laced with sadness and infused with anger, that answers Reginald Lord Devine’s clumsy question eloquently and emphatically.
What was it like for Billie Holiday to be a colored woman?
It was hard as hell. It was hard enough that she exploded in a gripping moment of raw honesty, “Of course I’m high!” That line landed on me like a punch in the chest and I thought, “She’s got a point.”
I didn’t think, “She had a point.” More than seventy years after the events that were being depicted, I was not reacting to what happened then… but to what is happening now. There is no need for a history lesson or a helpful viewer’s guide.
I watched police officers chase Ms. Holiday from the stage the moment she graced the room with the first haunting notes and lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” an ironically beautiful commentary on the ugly American tradition of lynching Black people, hanging them from trees – Get it? Strange Fruit. — and I was transported to the theater seat where I saw Straight Outta Compton, watching police officers chase N.W.A. for commenting on the same ugly tradition with a far less beautiful refrain… in 1989.
Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, is almost a caricature in the film. That’s a fair critique. He does everything but twist his moustache. I found myself forgiving the depiction, though, when I thought of how cartoonishly evil he actually was to go to all that trouble to hunt and imprison Billie Holiday… how cartoonishly evil police departments were to go to all that trouble to chase and jail N.W.A…. all that trouble to silence musicians and support murderers.
Of course she’s high!
I thought of Anslinger conspiring to destroy Ms. Holiday’s career for the crime of speaking up about the absurd inhumanity of it all… and I smirked at the realization that Hedlund, with his full head of hair and athletic build, looks less like Anslinger than he does Roger Goodell… speaking of ruined careers.
Of course she’s high!
When it ain’t “The Man,” it’s the men. Have mercy. Don’t get me started on the men in Ms. Holiday’s life. Not even Jimmy Fletcher’s (Trevante Rhodes) inhuman good looks can salvage that lot. However, Rhodes, with the charm and depth that are becoming his hallmark, captures subtly the joy and pain of loving someone who can’t quite manage to love themselves. He and Andra Day have a magic together that overcomes the fact that they are playing out a love story that never quite reaches its desired destination. Still, in their final moment, there is a purity in the smiles they share, something more reminiscent of a school yard crush than the all too adult reality they’ve known and shared.
In his eyes, we see that he sees the beauty of Billie Holiday, not Lady Day, the artist who starts our journey singing her classic lyrics, “All of me… Why not take all of me?,” the star audiences flocked to see and the government fought to destroy, but of the haunted woman behind the haunting voice. And through his eyes, we catch a fleeting glimpse of her beauty, too.
Holiday gave all of herself, like so many Black women do, until she had no self left of or for herself. Day gave us all of herself, too. All of her! And I’m glad that, at the very least, she got a Golden Globe for her trouble.
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