The United States vs. Billie Holiday

★★★

It’s always impressive to see an actor or actress take a mediocre script and elevate it to new heights with a transcendent performance.

It’s even more remarkable when the actor or actress is making their feature film debut.

R&B singer Andra Day is the perfect person to take on “Lady Day” Billie Holiday the new biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which is free to stream right now with a Hulu subscription. And it’s not just her similar surname that creates that connection.

She channels the legendary blues singer as if she were possessed by her spirit. She nails the emotion and the singing voice in a way that even surpasses previous portrayals of the iconic star (Diana Ross was nominated for an Oscar for playing Billie Holiday and Audra McDonald won a Tony and was nominated for an Emmy for playing her as well).

Unfortunately, Andra Day’s Golden-Globe-nominated performance is trapped inside of a mediocre film that is disjointed, unfocused and at times cliche. She deserves better and it’s a shame.

It’s a surprise that the screenplay is so weak considering it’s helmed by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Apparently Parks should stick to the stage instead of the big screen (her filmography is less than stellar and her biggest movie is “Girl 6,” one of Spike Lee’s lowest rated films).

Parks focuses on the last 10 years of Holiday’s life when the singer’s voice became hard and raspy, as did her guarded demeanor.

Even though they don’t tell Holiday’s entire life story it feels like this movie tried to tackle too much and sometimes doesn’t know what it wants to be. At times, it’s a political drama and other times it’s a story about drug abuse. It’s even a love story in parts.

During this decade, Holiday is already addicted to heroine and the FBI has targeted her because they feel her song “Strange Fruit” — which is about lynchings in the South — is dangerous and must be stopped. The government sends undercover FBI agents to nail her on bloated up drug charges to silence her Civil Rights credibility.

It’s the third film this awards season to focus on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI targeting and discrediting black activists, following the documentary “MLK/FBI,” and the excellent film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” In this Billie Holiday biopic, the FBI is treated like a cartoonish super villain, lacking the subtlety and complexity in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” I almost expected Garrett Hedlund’s agent to twirl a handlebar mustache like he was Snidely Whiplash.

Parks gives considerable screen time to a romance subplot featuring Holiday and the black FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes of “Moonlight” in a disappointingly flat performance). I looked it up and this romance is actually based in factual events but the way it’s written in the movie you would bet big money that it was fictionalized and contrived in order to create a narrative for the film.

Therein lies the biggest problem with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” While the events in the film are factually accurate, it fails to feel real or authentic. That’s because too many lines in the movie are meant to just set up background information that the audience might not have or emphasize the themes of the work. Subtlety is not present in this movie.

Characters recite lines that no actual human would utter, like, “You can’t sing ‘Strange Fruit.’ Don’t you know that the government doesn’t want you singing that song because it brings up uncomfortable truths about our society nowadays?” OK, that literal line isn’t spoken, but it’s not far from what is actually written.

I’m reminded of another awards contender this year in “Nomadland,” in which Frances McDormand’s character doesn’t have to give a big speech about her inner monologue because it’s all shown in the expressions on her face. In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” they don’t give Andra Day that same luxury and instead feed her clunky lines in which she emotionally vomits up every single feeling.

The film is directed by Lee Daniels, a former Best Director nominee at the Oscars for “Precious: based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” I’ve never been a huge fan of Daniels’ work. His film “The Paperboy” was one of the worst to come out that year. I saw not much more than melodramatic Oscar bait in his foray into political history with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (an unfortunate and arrogant title due to a lawsuit from another film called ‘The Butler.’) I even think “Precious” is a little over the top.

But Lee Daniels’ real strength might be that as a producer rather than a director. He’s responsible for hit TV shows like “Empire” and every single of his movies — even the bad ones — are full of amazing acting performances. He absolutely knows how to cast a film and put the right actors in the right place to succeed (the one exception would be his presidential portrayals in “The Butler.” I mean, John Cusack as Nixon?! C’mon!).

Lee Daniels nails the casting by selecting little-known singer Andra Day for the lead. She is a revelation. It’s another example of an amazing acting performance in an average-to-weak biopic. We saw it last year with Renee Zellweger in “Judy” and a few years back with Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady.” Both took him Oscars for their performances while the movies themselves were not nominated.

Previously I said that Andra Day was better than Diana Ross and that might song like sacrilege but it’s true. Although it’s been many years since I’ve seen 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” I never felt that Diana Ross became Billie Holiday. Her voice wasn’t as raspy (although she was playing a younger version) and I still saw Diana Ross on the screen.

Perhaps it’s because Day was unknown to me before but I really felt she inhabited this character. Her singing performances are mesmerizing and as a result Daniels inserts many, many on-stage songs throughout the film. Almost too many. There was one point where we see a three-minute performance at Carnegie Hall and then after a minute and half of story in between we get another three minutes of her singing in a smoky jazz club. It was a bit much.

There are many aspects of Holiday’s life that they barely touch on. Unlike biopics like “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” this film doesn’t feel the need to start at childhood and reenact every single event in her life. That’s a good thing though. Some audiences might be disappointed that more screen time isn’t given to the sexual relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead. Although I was confused by Natasha Lyonne’s almost-British accent while playing the Alabama-born actress.

There are moments of brilliance in Lee Daniels movie but unfortunately they are quickly followed by scene so trite and cliche that it feels like a moment from the biopic-parody-comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if Tim Meadows offered her heroine.

Despite all of these flaws in screenplay and direction, Andra Day is so very good that she nearly erases any missteps. I hope she continues to act in feature films and next time gets a chance to work with a stronger script.

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