Monday, March 15, 2021

The United States vs. Billie Holiday: Billie’s Blues

Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

What is it about Billie Holiday that brings out the twenty-four-carat fakery in dramatists? The 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues was a manufactured pop romance built around the various appeals of Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor; luckily they were considerable, and Ross, in her dramatic debut, gave such an enchanting performance as Holiday that you could forgive the fatuous screenplay and the sometimes outrageous factual inaccuracies, like turning Holiday’s abusive last husband, the mobster Louis McKay (played by Williams), into a devoted champion who struggles manfully but in vain to keep her off heroin. Lanie Robertson’s play Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill, set a few months before Holiday’s death in 1959, is a series of musical performances linked by melodramatic monologues. (The last time around Audra McDonald played it on Broadway, in 2014, in a display of scenery chewing that I wouldn’t have thought her capable of.) Now we’ve got the glum, self-serious The United States vs. Billie Holiday (available on Hulu) starring the singer Andra Day. The director is Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), but to put it kindly he’s not at his best because he’s chained to a screenplay by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks that’s a real stinker.

It’s hard to know what Parks thinks she’s doing here. The acknowledged source material isn’t a biography of Holiday; it’s a non-fiction bestseller by Johan Hari with the unprepossessing title Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Hari’s book, which I haven’t read, is a critique of that war, and one of his targets is Harry Anslinger (played in the picture, in an awful, mustache-twirling performance, by Garrett Hedlund), the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger pursued Holiday relentlessly, throwing her in jail, denying her a cabaret card when she was released, and, in Parks’s version at least, framing her repeatedly, at one point by having McKay (Rob Morgan) plant drugs on her moments before the Feds arrive on the scene. In view of Holiday’s legitimate problem with heroin, which she never succeeded in shaking, it hardly seems worth the trouble; all the Feds had to do was wait around long enough and they’d catch her with the goods. But logic isn’t a big consideration in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. And as it turns out, the movie isn’t about what’s wrong with treating addicts like criminals. Anslinger’s a raving racist who is actually after Holiday to stop her from singing “Strange Fruit” – the anti-lynching ballad by Abel Meeropol and Laura Duncan (based on his 1937 poem) that became one of her anthems – because it was fueling the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. That’s a plausible point of view, but the movie is so confused that the racist theme and the war on drugs plot end up as competing ideas that reduce Holiday, a magnificent but self-destructive jazz artist, to a symbolic victim of the manipulation of powerful forces she doesn’t have a hope in hell of defeating.

Lady Sings the Blues had its made-up version of Louis McKay; The United States vs. Billie Holiday introduces a semi-fictionalized African American character named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) who is working for Anslinger but feels so terrible about how the Federal Bureau of Narcotics is treating her that he comes over to her side. Anslinger appears to know that Fletcher is compromised yet he assigns him to travel with her on a cross-country tour, during which time they become lovers and he turns a blind eye to her drug-taking. More than that, in fact: Jimmy eventually shoots up with her, which somehow enables him to enter her consciousness and relive her memories of growing up with a prostitute for a mother who arranges for her to turn tricks when she’s still a little girl. This may be the most preposterous scene in a musical bio since the finale of the 1946 Till the Clouds Roll By, in which Jerome Kern, played by Robert Walker, ascends to heaven, where the M-G-M Studio Orchestra, on a cloud, backs a white tie-clad Frank Sinatra on “Ol’ Man River.” Rhodes gave a moving performance as Black in the last section of Moonlight, but all he’s asked to do in this movie is look buff and dreamy and earnest – like Billy Dee Williams in Lady Sings the Blues.

Andra Day appears to have acting talent, but here she employs it mostly in the service of avoiding the worst pitfalls of Parks’s terrible writing. And her scenes just keep repeating themselves. The movie isn’t especially interested in what Holiday was like as a jazz singer or what her singing meant to her, but occasionally, when Day gets to loosen up on a swinging number like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” she breaks through briefly and provides the kind of pleasure you watch a movie like this for. (The movie doesn’t bother to mention most of the musicians she played with, but Tyler James Williams manages to make an impression as Lester Young.) But either Parks is unaware of that pleasure or thinks that indulging in it would blunt the movie’s political edge. This is self-delusion of a fairly high order.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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