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“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” eludes artistic greatness to focus on drugs, sex & violence

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” eludes artistic greatness to focus on drugs, sex & violence

Billie Holiday’s life was a mess. In a cruel way it seems only fitting that her biopic is, too. Oscillating between fact-based FBI thriller and fictional romance, Lee Daniels seems more interested in the men in her short life than in the unhappy singer who’s mesmerizing voice made every song she interpreted her own. The same goes for Andra Day’s captivating performance, illuminating every clichéd clash and foreseeable flourish of Holiday’s final decade with the vigorous genuineness the erratic plot lacks. Her artistic brilliance is treated literarily as a side note remitting her voyeuristic portrayal as self-destructive junkie. 

Tellingly, Suzan-Lori Parks’ script takes its cues from Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, chronicling the war on drugs, hardly mentioning Trevante Rhodes’ scheming FBI agent Fletcher. He seduces Holiday only to betray her to racist figurehead Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) who has her imprisoned basically for singing Strange Fruit. Instead on focusing on systemic racism and institutionalized censorship, the salacious story rewards Fletcher with Holiday’s love, lust and trust. Hence, the abuse and exploitation the singer faced throughout her life is not only romanticized but indirectly perpetuated by a movie reveling in scenes of self-harm, addiction and mistreatment.

Low-point of Daniels’ sensationalist sellout is a flashback to Holiday’s childhood in the brothel her mother and soon herself worked in and her witnessing a lynching, all staged like a reenactment park ride accompanied by the wide-eyed Fletcher. It’s one of several scenes wrong on so many levels: a male perspective deemed imperative to relay female experience, personal trauma glamorized as creative source, historic injustice enshrined as artistic inspiration. Companions spell out Holiday’s emotions in blunt expository dialogue while her actual voice remains unheard. The FBI couldn’t silence that voice, the film’s poster boasts. But this production can. 

  • OT: The United States vs. Billie Holiday
  • Regie: Lee Daniels
  • Drehbuch: Suzan-Lori Parks, Johann Hari
  • Produktionsland: USA
  • Jahr: 2021
  • Laufzeit: 130 min. 
  • Cast: Andra Day, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Koumba Ball, Kate MacLellan, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Warren ‘Slim’ Williams, Orville Thompson
  • Kinostart: –
  • Beitragsbild © Hulu