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Quite a few historical films concerned with civil rights have been released recently – One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom… I wonder why the industry is so supportive of Black-led films that remind audiences of segregation and violent racism. Can we fund and celebrate all the films about contemporary Black joy and not just about Black suffering?

Perhaps that’s an aside to this particular film, but as I watch The United States vs Billie Holiday unfold, a biopic with the through line of an 1937 anti-lynching bill and Holiday’s performance of Strange Fruit as an act of political defiance, I wonder if there’s anything new to learn from a familiar story of the drug-induced decline of a talented artist, or a person of colour being unjustly hounded by US law enforcement.

Lee Daniels’ film is an uneven watch. It begins rather stiltedly, with an ill and weary Billie Holiday giving an interview to a useless white journalist (Leslie Jordan) whose praise for her flows as easily as his unfathomable racist naiveté. “What’s it like to be a coloured woman?”, he asks with a glint in his eye, knowing full well that it’s 1957 America and segregation is still in full swing. A taste of what’s to come, of course – or what’s been, as we flash back to Billie in the midst of her career, being strongly advised not to sing Strange Fruit to avoid getting shut down by the police. They can’t risk the song inciting riots and promoting equal rights, so they plant an agent named Jimmy Fletcher (an enigmatic Trevante Rhodes) to pose as a soldier and get Holiday arrested for drug possession.

Andra Day as Billie Holiday and Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher in The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Factually infuriating as the film undoubtedly is, these truths about law enforcement, targeting Holiday in all her trauma, addiction and vulnerability, are compelling regardless of their being dramatised. But it’s hard to know what the film wants you to think of it all, because everything we are presented with is so straightforwardly told, shot, framed, filmed, edited. I yearn for lingering images to tell me something profound beyond words. For metaphor to tell me something beyond appearances. For the surprise.

Suzan-Lori Parks is a great writer, and the script itself flows well enough through its clichés of trauma-induced decline – but whenever Holiday isn’t on stage singing, the film feels depleted and dull. I cannot praise Andra Day enough, though, for her outstanding performance in her first lead role. She carries the film effortlessly. Her voice is Billie Holiday, with all its inflections, cracks and texture. She movingly embodies the singer’s tragic dualities – vulnerable and viscous, performing exquisite love songs but so desperately abandoned by love.

Holiday’s affair with the posh Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) is hinted at, but goes no further. There’s some intrigue to Jimmy Fletcher’s redemption arc, though it feels lightly sketched. The theme of being used by others could have been a promising fresh angle – Jimmy by the federal agents, Billie as their scapegoat, by the numerous lovers and managers in her life, by audiences who want her to entertain without allowing her basic rights and dignities – but it barely registers.

Andra Day as Billie Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday

“They just want me to shut up and sing All of Me” rings very true. Of this film too, maybe. It feels too procedural and distancing, going through the motions of what a biography film should contain.

So, I wonder who this film is for. I’m someone who can hardly bear to listen to Strange Fruit, or contemplate the word ‘lynching’, for all the unimaginable pain and suffering they conjure. I don’t need convincing to care, but I do need a film to hold my attention. 

The unhiding of Billie Holiday’s troubled history is commendable, and the United States of this film is clearly the toxic, hypocritical and villainous one inherited by the US today, which is yet to outlaw lynching. But as cinema, The United States vs Billie Holiday lacks creativity and dynamism.

Further reading

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom explores the politics behind the ‘Mother of the Blues’

By Nadine Deller

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom explores the politics behind the ‘Mother of the Blues’

One Night in Miami… imagines four legendary Black lives intersecting in 1964

By Alex Ramon

One Night in Miami… imagines four legendary Black lives intersecting in 1964

MLK/FBI narrows America’s race struggles to fit its spotlight

By Chrystel Oloukoï

MLK/FBI narrows America’s race struggles to fit its spotlight

Judas and the Black Messiah lays bare the criminality of a US police state

By Devika Girish

Judas and the Black Messiah lays bare the criminality of a US police state