THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY (2021) Bryan Dunaway ️ ️ ️ ️ ️5/5 A work of art, a great film about a complicated, yet uniquely talented singer whose music means a lot to many of us. A dizzying dance with destiny that we are allowed to observe. Trial and triumph and more trial. Heartwarming in spots but mostly gut-wrenching. Darkness with just occasional daylight. That’s what this film is. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the 2021 Hulu release about the legendary singer, brings a song of affliction to the soul and more than a train with a thousand boxcars worth of heartache. The film has received bad reviews. I’m here to say those bad reviews are…bad. Notable critics are wrong about this film. The movie evidently has some historical inaccuracies in it, based on many reports I’ve heard and read (I don’t know, I’ve not done a thorough investigation). It was based on a book by Johann Hari and I have no idea how accurate the book is. For this discussion, I am not concerned. I am reviewing and analyzing the artistic merits, not the historical accuracy, of a film. And what it does have is an evocative, mesmerizing performance by Andra Day as Holiday, who was one of the greatest Jazz singers—and singers, period—in history. Holiday was an amazing woman with a troubled life, and she is portrayed with vigor and brilliance by an extremely talented singer in her own right, making her film debut. That’s right. This is Andra Day acting in a film for the first time. Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, adapted the material for the screen, Lee Daniels directed it, and Andrew Dunn did the cinematography. The film contains drama, abstract-type artistic elements, clear moments of artistic license and historical narratives, assembled together to create an amassment of cinematic triumph. Holiday’s life was hard from childhood on. She was exposed to and involved in many bad things, and there is no effort here to sanitize who she was or the life she lived. The film is graphically honest in its telling. This one is not for kids. Holiday was mistreated, used and exploited by men all of her life. And she was a drug addict. And—she was black. And the FBI hated her. Judy Garland, many people do not know, had a serious drug and alcohol addiction too, around the same time, but the FBI did not hound her. Holiday points something like this out in the film more than once. She knows she needs help, but instead of winding up in a hospital where she could get it, they put her in jail. I wonder why Judy Garland was treated differently from Billie Holiday? Oh, wait, I bet I know. The plot of the film centers around Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit,” a haunting one that deals with the lynching of African-Americans. It is lyrically beautiful and provocative in its message, like a slap in the face to those who did not see, or were not willing to see, what was being done to Black people, especially in the South. It took a lot of active courage to even sing the song. At the beginning of the movie, we are reminded that the U. S. Senate, in 1937, finally considered a bill which would have outlawed the lynching of African-Americans. The text is displayed across a picture of a group of smiling white men from some time around that period. Then the haunting words, “The bill did not pass” appear as the camera pans down to the corpse of a black person who has been lynched. We then shift to 1957 where Holiday is being interviewed by a radio personality who asks why she continues to sing “Strange Fruit” even though she keeps “getting in trouble” for it. “Have you ever seen a lynching?” she asks, and then explains that the song is about human rights, which the government often forgets about. So far everything is “historically accurate.“ The conversation leads to a flashback to 1947 where Holiday is singing “All of Me” in a club. She later argues with her manager, Joe Glaser, and her abusive husband, Monroe, over whether or not she should sing “Strange Fruit.” The two men have become friends with FBI agent Harry J. Anslinger, and Glaser informs her that people high up in the government don’t want her singing it. We then see a meeting where Anslinger warns his colleagues that Holiday refuses to stop singing the song and, therefore, is a threat to the American civilization or way of life or some such nonsense. They fear that she and the song will be a force for the imminent Civil Rights Movement. But since they cannot arrest her for singing a song, and “inciting a riot” would only be a misdemeanor, they point out that she is a drug addict and decide that is the avenue down which they will go after her. They will harass her on drug charges. The film then shows Holiday doing heroin. She performs her next concert in honor of servicemen, saying that they are “fighting a real war” and she appreciates them. Kevin Hanchard plays Louis Armstrong at her side. The audience has federal agents in it, keeping an eye on her. After complaining that she feels “lonely tonight,” she starts singing “Solitude,” hauntingly interspersed with scenes of her drug use. The rest of the film deals with the rest of her life, as she is betrayed, hunted, harassed and persecuted, ostensibly for drug use, but really because she is a powerful, successful black woman whom the government fears. The auteurism of director Lee Daniels drove the film to be a work of art more than a straight biopic. It is a movie of passion and beauty. I believe many critics have totally misinterpreted this film. You would hardly expect critics to malign perceived historical inaccuracies in dream sequences and montages of the singer’s life that are expressive and surreal. Maybe Billie Holiday is suffering the same kind of persecution of misunderstanding in death that she did in life. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” points to the way that the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover, a notorious and obvious racist, targeted African-Americans and was determined to “keep them in their place.” The so-called “war on drugs” was not about public health or safety, it was about persecuting African-Americans. I think many of us have believed that for a long time, the film just believes it too. Billie Holiday proclaims in the film that the government could not afford to lose illegal narcotics. Think of how many government agencies would cease to exist, how many people would be out of jobs, if there were no illegal drugs saturating the streets. That does not mean that drugs are good, it means that there is hypocrisy in politics. And Hoover was one of the worst hypocrites in history. Many historians dispute the fact that the song “Strange Fruit” was the reason the government harassed Holiday. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is not totally accurate historically. Let’s go further and say that very little of its plot is accurate at all. What cannot be denied is that the point it makes, that the government harassed African-Americans and especially successful ones who spoke out about injustice, that J. Edgar Hoover‘s FBI was criminally racist, and that the incessant singling out and dogging of and mistreatment of Holiday happened for some reason, even if it wasn’t because of a song. Who is made to look bad in this film if it took certain artistic liberties? If it was the FBI under Hoover, then good. The FBI chief did a lot of good for the country, but his legacy should be called on the carpet concerning the way he mistreated many American citizens. The film was not based on a biography of Billie Holiday. Perhaps it would have been better served to be. But the point remains that the essence of the woman, her talent, her career, and her troubles, are captured in a very enthralling manner. And a final point about Andra Day. As noted, this was Day’s acting debut and she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture-Drama and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. There is some Déjà vu stuff going on here. Diana Ross also played Billie Holiday in her film debut, “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972). She also won…a Golden Globe award and was nominated for an Academy Award. I never thought I would see anything like Ross’ performance in that film again, but Day is right there with her, even besting her in the look and sound of Holiday. This movie is worth seeing if for no other reason (and there are plenty of other reasons) than to see Day’s performance. She nails the sound of Holiday, and more than adequately looks like her. At times you will think she is lip-synching over a Billie Holiday record. But that is Andra Day singing every song in the movie. Unbelievable. “Nomadland” was a fantastic picture and Francis McDormand is one of the best actresses ever. She had already won two Academy Awards for Best Actress and won a third for playing Fern in “Nomadland.” It was a great performance, but it cannot touch what Andra Day did in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” The Academy Awards are over ninety years old, it’s 2021, and it seems we are still waiting for them to become color blind. ReplyForward
THE LITTLE THINGS
John Lee Hancock’s trip into the neo-noir crime thriller genre, titled “The Little Things,” had all of the elements for success at its disposal. The story, set in the early 1990s, is just unhinged enough to make it uniquely terrific. Jared Leto gives a fine performance as a weird outcast who may or may not be responsible for murders that are being investigated by two detectives. Rami Malek plays one of them. If we stop right there, there is plenty enough for a good film. But the film also stars Denzel Washington and it takes a lot to make a bad movie with that man. Unfortunately, “The Little Things” succeeds.
I’ve often said that Denzel Washington is an actor who is incapable of making a bad movie because any film that features a performance by him is at least good enough to watch for that reason alone. And that trend continues here as he gives another masterful rendering. But it is the way the plot is handled and the overall oddity of the vibe that makes it a disappointing picture. If you want to watch Washington, a master craftsman, in yet another film, then by all means see this one. Malek and Leto also do very good work here. Therefore, I will say that the film is worth watching because of the performances. Those are the only reasons I can give, however, because the movie overall is just not good.
We start off with a thrilling enough beginning. A female traveler is stalked by an unseen villain but she manages to escape him. The location then shifts from Los Angeles to Bakersfield where a deputy sheriff named Joe Deacon (Washington) goes on assignment to Los Angeles to collect data concerning a recent murder. While he is there, we learn that he used to be a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Deacon becomes friends with lead detective Jimmy Baxter and goes with him to a crime scene where evidence bears remarkable similarities to a serial killer case he left Los Angeles over, years ago, because his inability to solve it broke him down.
After a woman disappears while jogging, Baxter, against the advice of other officers who know Deacon, continues to let him assist in the investigation. Baxter cannot see how the nature of his work has corrupted Deacon. His eyes are hollow, his soul seems barren. Something is definitely off in his sense of due process. We learn that he is haunted by the victims of the killer that he could not stop. You often have to step away from someone, no matter how much you like them, because their presence in your life is toxic. Baxter would have done well to consider that fact of life and disassociate himself from Deacon.
Another victim is found the next morning and the police realize they have a serial killer on their hands. Deacon seems to see more than that. He begins to zero in on a mysterious loner named Sparma (Leto) who is outwardly creepy enough to seem like a man capable of heinous criminal conduct. Deacon is selfishly overzealous, though, and is judging the book by its cover. Some people just like to be eccentric, like to get their thrills by taunting other people. They are bad, but not all bad people are capable of murder. This man may or may not be the culprit, but Deacon is convinced of his guilt way before the evidence requires it. His obsession is a personal one. He is more concerned about the toil that the unsolved case he worked on years ago has taken on him, than on a desire to see that justice is done.
Deacon breaks the law in his blind selfishness and it has him chasing shadows. Baxter begins to transform under his influence, as well. Bad companions will corrupt you. Regardless of what kind of upstanding, honorable cop Deacon was in the past, he is clearly not a hero now. The case is too personal for him, and that is a mark of his selfishness.
We discover soon enough what Deacon’s motive is, what the skeleton in the closet is, the ghost under his bed. It’s not pleasant and not what we expected. And it shows once again the versatility of Denzel Washington as an actor. This man is torturous.
Guilt is a selfish emotion, unlike a positive decision of the will like repentance. When a person repents, he is sorry for what he has done or not done and sets about to make it right in positive ways. Guilt is only a psychological paralytic that will desensitize a person to the enormity of the current transgressions they commit in an effort to heal the pain they are feeling. People struggling with guilt have a tendency not only to destroy themselves, but also those around them.
Deacon was a good cop. Is he one now? How far has Baxter gone down the road of corruption? Has he gone too far to turn back? The film asks more questions than it answers, and at times there is engaging dramatic effect, but not often. It deals with important themes, but not as well as it could have. And overall the film gets lost in its own sense of importance, and its desire to be clever. Is it worth watching? It has Denzel Washington in it, so of course it is. Is it one of his better films? Absolutely not.