In the 1940s the FBI targets Billie Holiday, claiming her song ‘Strange Fruit’, about a lynching, to be un-American and therefore she is also being un-American. Unable to arrest her for singing her song, they instead go after her for drug possession. After trauma suffered at a young age, Holiday descends into her drug addiction and failed relationships, even betraying her nearest and dearest supporters. Over the later years of her career, Holiday is unable to sing the famous song until one day on tour she breaks.
Focusing in on the life and times of Billie Holiday once the FBI had honed in on her drug habit and decided to make it a priority to ‘bring her down’ seems like a good place to start a film about the singer’s life. But this does cut out her turbulent childhood, the abuse and neglect she suffered and her rise to fame. In not including the earlier parts of Billie’s life, she loses context to her behaviour. Although it is touched upon through a flashback drug fuelled haze as seen by another character, it is then only mentioned briefly in a few passing scenes. Concentrating on her life fighting (and avoiding) the FBI and the government in connection to her famous song ‘Strange Fruit’, at times the film feels as if it leaving moments out and hitting the highlights of her life until her death.
With any biopics, there is always the danger of either covering from start to finish and only including significant moments or choosing to concentrate on one particular time period. The United States vs Billie Holiday tries to do both resulting in a fantastically acted and elongated period in time biopic that wants to include as many ‘arty’ shots as possible. Andra Day is absolutely mesmerizing as Billie Holiday, fully immersing herself in the singer’s world. The voice is key here as Day does all the singing. She captures Holiday on and off screen and holds us with each gaze, particularly through the full performance of ‘Strange Fruit’.
The war on drugs being used as a reason to pursue Billie Holiday for years is excessive, yet is stems from the truth. Although the film does use fictional characters to pad out the actual events and real people, the truth behind the stories is mostly all true, which some biopics tend to twist. The film does indulge in trying to be several different kinds of films in one and therefore over stretches the run time which does feel too long, but the amazing central performances at least make up for it.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is available now on DVD.