Potent Civil Rights story sidelined by drugs & booze in Lee Daniels’ historical drama ‘The United States vs Billie Holiday’

Facing the music: Andra Day stars as the title character in ‘The United States vs Billie Holiday’.

A stellar performance from Andra Day as legendary soul singer Billie Holiday holds together the rather rickety framework of Lee Daniels’ barbed tribute to the talent and courage she showed during those nakedly racist years before the Civil Rights movement truly took off.

Perhaps looking a little glossier than it needs to, the film uses Holiday’s classic song Strange Fruit as the focal point to her story, which covers her fame, her battles with authority and, most dangerous of all, the battle with the inner demons that drove her to alcohol and heroin addiction.

The song was a response to the widespread lynching of black people by angry white people, whose practice of stringing them up from trees gave the song it’s haunting title.

The film gives a good account of how Holiday dared to be political at a time when black entertainers were expected to avoid controversy and simply perform to their non-controversy seeking, mostly white audiences.

She defiantly sang the song nontheless, making herself a rather large thistle in the posterior of the Commie-obsessed government, which was on the look-out for agitators by using black agents to get close to their targets (a scenario similar to the one we just saw in Judas and the Black Messiah.)

Enter agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) who, following directives from narcotics bureau boss Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), enters Holiday’s inner circle.

He turns out to be an unfortunate soul who loses sight of his mission by getting swept up in Holiday’s drug-dazed world.

Unfortunately, the film itself suffers from the same syndrome. The story’s dramatic pitch is sharpest when locked onto the persecution of Holiday and her disruptive anti-racist cause. Consequently, when we drift away from that in the second half the film loses tension and tends to sag somewhat.

There are some fine artistic touches, including an arresting, surreal sequence where Holiday happens upon a lynching. There are also many fab musical sequences, with Andra Day, a Grammy-winning R&B artist, commanding the frame as she makes a meal of her first major film role.

These segments help make up for some rather rambling, fuzzy direction from Lee Daniels (The Butler; Precious) who can’t quite sustain enough drive to make Holiday’s story as compelling as it deserves to be.

Harry Anslinger was clearly a major bastard and there should have been more of him. Villains are manna for movies and his story shouldn’t have been relegated to end-of-film captions. That said, Garrett Hedlund does a very good job playing a very nasty character.

Trevante Rhodes Is very good as the deeply conflicted narc, echoing themes of treachery we saw in Judas and the Black Messiah. It’s interesting how both these high-profile films deal with the issue of black vs black.

Footnote: As a treat, old-school film aficionados will enjoy the nicely etched portraiture of the sexually adventurous Tallulah Bankhead by Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black).

Bankhead was a noted stage and screen actress who also enjoyed fostering a promiscuous persona, her conquests including many prominent women and men, including the notorious womanizer Chico Marx.

As related by American talk show host Dick Cavett, early in her career Bankhead encountered Chico at a party, where he had been instructed by Groucho to behave himself.

After a polite introductory exchange, Chico said “You know, I really want to f- you.”

Bankhead’s response was equally frank. “And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy.”