The US government’s persecution of prominent members of the black community has been a recurring theme this Oscar season. MLK/FBI details the harassment and surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. Judas and the Black Messiah follows an informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers in order to take down Fred Hampton. And now, The United States vs. Billie Holiday focuses on the FBI’s attacks on the legendary singer. They targeted Holiday (Andra Day) because of her song “Strange Fruit”, which tells the story of the lynching of Black men and women in the South. The FBI claimed the song would incite riots. They were actually worried about it inspiring a burgeoning civil rights movement and threatening their way of life. White life.
US vs. Billie Holiday covers her story from the 1940s to the 1950s. By this time she is an established star touring the country. She also has a huge drug problem that threatens to derail her career. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) comes onto the scene at this time. He’s claims to be a journalist, but is actually a Federal narcotics agent. The head of the division, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), knows about Holiday’s drug issues. If he can take her down with that she won’t be able to perform “Strange Fruit”. Thanks to Fletcher’s betrayal, Holiday is sent to prison. Oddly enough, when she gets out, she accepts him back into her life and they begin a relationship. But he’s still being used by Anslinger to get to her, a role that Fletcher begins to rebel against.
Director Lee Daniels has a lot to juggle with this film. It’s part biopic, romance, and historical drama. As a result Holiday’s story often feels disjointed, like Daniels is jumping around from moment to moment in an attempt to capture everything. Also, the sudden tonal and visual shifts are distracting. It’s a very interesting piece, but it could have been more cohesive. Day, on the other hand, often exceeds the movie she’s in. She truly embodies Holiday from the start, going beyond a simple imitation. Plus, her performances in the musical numbers are captivating. It’s an incredible debut that is deserving of the Oscar talk.