“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” Review

Story posted March 6, 2021 in Arts & Entertainment by Cade Miller.

Billie Holiday was a Black American jazz and swing singer in the 1940s and ‘50s. She was known for her pioneering in changing music’s tempo and phrasing. Perhaps most importantly, she wrote and sang the song “Strange Fruit” that spread the word about the hanging of innocent Black people.

With that, the government was severely against her performing this song because it was said to start chaos. They couldn’t stop her just for a song, so they needed to catch her on something else. She was addicted to heroin.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is a drama about the story of Holiday struggling with addiction in her efforts to combat her constant butting heads with the U.S. government. This movie really dives into the life of a Black American during the 1940s, and not just any Black American, but a celebrity. Even this world-renowned star struggled with discrimination for her skin and abuse for her gender.

In terms of 2021 releases, there has only been one other big film that focuses on racism: “Judas and the Black Messiah.” It and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” are two powerful films that show audiences the life of a person of color in America.

The film starts with Holiday, already a pretty popular jazz star. Right from the start, it showcases her addiction to heroin and how she uses it to take the edge off of her abuse from the men who control her career.

Jimmy Fletcher, an undercover Black FBI agent, trying to catch Billie on drugs to turn her in to his boss Harry Anslinger (Anslinger is a racist who hates Billie’s song “Strange Fruit”).

Throughout the film, many of Billie’s traumas are brought to light: her rape at 10 years old, her mom running a brothel in her home, her lack of a father, her first use of heroin, and the discrimination against the Black community.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” keeps it interesting while remaining very informative of Holiday’s story, though it seems to almost miss something. There is just this constant circle of Holiday getting caught with heroin, stopping her drug abuse, finding a new significant other, using again, singing, and getting caught again. There’s no true climax, no turning point for her.

Yes, this film is based on her true stories, and director Lee Daniels didn’t want to stray too far from reality. But there needed to be some sort of change in plot for a more satisfying watch.

Another area where “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” falls is how the audience receives Billie’s past. Most of the information is given to the audience directly from characters in dialogue. Movies that reveal major information like this tend to lack the significance of their backstories. Nevertheless, there is one scene that stands out more than the others by showing the audience the direct story of Holiday. It’s great, but it shouldn’t stand alone.

As a movie depicted as being in the time period between the ‘30s and ‘50s, something that really shines through and represents that era well is the crossfade between shots. The overlap between the last shot and the next really reflects the time period and how filming would have been like then. It makes for terrific usage of time passing and inner conflict with characters.

The camerawork is also second to none. The shot of Holiday taking in the applause of all the attendees in the audience is simply astounding. There are many shots like this to take in, and the film was better for it.

All in all, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is a strong and meaningful film, but it’s missing some key pieces that could have made it exceptional.

Rating: 3/5


Cade Miller is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email cam7095@psu.edu.

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