The true motives behind the early goings of wars on drugs aren’t exactly nuanced. Look at Harry Jacob Anslinger, for example: He spent over thirty years as the commissioner of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics with his sights set more as a war against jazz, black people and the Mexican border. There’s been plenty of lurid sensationalism to his name, but the historical record tells us that his scare tactics had little influence on public opinion, and that Anslinger’s own motives and statements were contradictory. Mostly, he was just after big budgets and power. Such subtextual distinction isn’t in the sights of director Lee Daniels. Barely fifteen minutes into his new film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a federal agent declares that Holiday’s immortal song “Strange Fruit” is being referred to as “a starting gun for this so-called civil rights movement!” This is 1947, which means that the line is not just a clunker but an anachronism. In Daniels’ take on the tragic destruction of Holiday (Andra Day) and her simultaneous struggles with the feds, heroin addiction, and her messy personal life, we get to view it all with our enlightened hindsight and perk up in moments of joy and wag our finger at the cut-and-dry evil.
Daniels obviously isn’t a realist. Since his breakthrough, Precious, he has developed a reputation as a filmmaker who throws everything at the wall and waits to see what sticks. In fact, one sort of wonders if turning The United States vs. Billie Holiday into a full-on melodrama might’ve actually helped. The material at hand is ambitious and irresistible: Holiday’s arrest, conviction, and incarceration for drug possession, which came at the height of her popularity; her self-destructive streak; the hubbub over “Strange Fruit”; her romance with Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) and peculiar relationship with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent who was initially sent to infiltrate her inner circle.
Yet the script, adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks from the article The Hunting of Billie Holiday, is more timeline than drama. Day, who’s quite good, moves through it with comfort and charisma, though. Her Billie Holiday is as much a star in the green room as she is onstage, faced with applause or the rough bathroom-mirror reflection of abuse and addiction. But many of the other characters might as well be reading off cue cards. (The usually reliable Garrett Hedlund, miscast here as the aforementioned Holiday-hating Anslinger, is one of the more hopeless examples.)
Daniels seems to strain to make his rocky attempts at impressionism work within the very journalistic bent of the source material, yet he struggles to find the emotion of it all. Occasionally, he borrows from the top narcotic stylists: There are imitations of editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s rapid dissolves, and scenes that look like they might’ve been mood-boarded from stills from Wong Kar-wai movies. When things get loose and improv-y, Holiday and her backstage confidantes seem like they stepped in straight from the modern world, as they move stiffly in their suits, with awkward interactions.
Yet none of the bloated material at hand is enough to sustain two-hours-ten-minutes worth of runtime. Daniels soldiers on, dragging the film from one montage of sex, drugs, and vocal jazz standards to the next, pausing for sit-downs in loudly wallpapered rooms, where the less interesting supporting characters are called upon to explain what makes Holiday so important. Is the world cruelly closing around the great vocalist? Sure. But the superficially ornamented claustrophobia grows repetitive and stagnant. It’s equally sloppy and reductively on-the-nose, but what possibly hurts The United States vs. Billie Holiday, in the end, is how laboriously and woodenly it clings to the conventions of its genre.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available to stream on Hulu