Rated R. While this is rated R for all of the reason that Academy Award nominated dramas are rated R, the movie really dives deep into almost exploitative nudity in a sexual context. Like, I haven't seen a movie try these kinds of sex scenes since the '90s. And these scenes keep happening and go for long periods of time. And the movie, as a whole, isn't necessarily about sex. But the movie also involves racism, drug use, homophobia, and all kinds of R-rated subject matter. R.
DIRECTOR: Lee Daniels
I have so much work to do. So much work. I really want to have a work free weekend and I don't know if I can pull that off at this point. I'm writing really quickly because I don't want this over my head and it is a break from grading a bazillion papers. We'll see if I can pull this off in a reasonable amount of time, okay?
If I was to make a guess which movie didn't deserve to be nominated before watching them, I wouldn't have guessed that The United States vs. Billie Holiday would be the stinker. I mean, it has a lot going for it. I know Lee Daniels only from reputation, so I wouldn't have thought that he would drop the ball in terms of direction. The only thing that this movie has really going for it is Andra Day's portrayal of the titular heroine, which is what the movie is nominated for. But man alive, this movie is almost straight up bad. I had to stop the movie the first night because it, no joke, put me to sleep. It's not like the story was bad. The things I learned about Billie Holiday, while heavily entrenched in speculation apparently, was fascinating. But this is a movie that hits every biopic trope along the way while simultaneously committing a cinema sin that completely ruins the film: it doesn't know what it wants to say.
I've said before that I'm tired of the musician biopic. I really went off on a rant when it applied to Bohemian Rhapsody. We get it. The world of music is a tragic and lonely one. I know that when looking at the life of Billie Holiday, you can't possibly ignore the tragic things about it. But it shouldn't also be the thing that defines her character in this movie. I'll get to that in a second. If I was to tell you that there was going to be a biopic about a musician, you can guess that the movie is going to show about how the rise to fame has corrupted this person. This person would fall down a tunnel of vice, whether it be booze or drugs or both. The protagonist will push everyone away, yet you will still be asked to root for this character, despite the fact that this character acts abominably. Everything I just said applies to The United States vs. Billie Holiday. But why have a title like that if the movie is going to be about the dangers of success?
Because the movie wants to do everything. It wants to do too much and it doesn't know that it needs to focus its lens on something and say that well. If I take it from the title of the film, the movie should be about the United States government going after Billie Holiday for singing "Strange Fruit." I love that as a tight, hour-and-a-half movie. I've mentioned this before, but my nerd knowledge is weakest when it comes to music. The story of "Strange Fruit", while underdeveloped in the movie, ended up being fascinating. Holiday would sing this call of rebellion at these venues as a means to draw light to the lynching happening in the South. The government, without any power to really stop it, decided to go after Holiday in other ways, both in terms of tearing down her public persona and arresting her on drug charges. That should be the movie.
Instead, we get a lot of threads. I want to use Selma as an example of how to do this correctly. (My goal of this blog was to write about every movie I had seen, but for some reason, as of the time of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, I hadn't written about Selma.) Selma is a biopic of Dr. King. It is an extremely focused storyline basically structured around King and Lewis's march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It's a really tight story and it works really well. Like with Holiday, the FBI wanted to go after King without really having a legal reason to do so. So to tear him down, they decided to focus on King's vice: extra-marital affairs. But the movie never showed us these affairs. Instead, we have incrimination and inference that allows the audience to pick up on what's going down. But The United States vs. Billie Holiday decided to show us about every bad thing that Billie Holiday did. She alienated everyone around her. She was rude and selfish. The story should be about the United States being the bad guy in this narrative. But by the time that the United States had gone after her, she had made herself really hard to like.
The role of the biopic, especially the ones where celebrity is involved, is to create a sense of empathy for the subject of the film. With Billie Holiday, I started off empathetic. She was a Black woman with a strong voice during a time of extreme racial disparity. (I use this phrase implying that there isn't a divide today. That isn't accurate. We're at a new surge.) But because Daniels focuses so much on Holiday as a polarizing figure, there's only so much that can be tacked on. While the singing of "Strange Fruit" is a morally impressive act, it almost pales to the cruelty that she inflicts on others. A lot of that comes from the fact that she led a traumatic life that caused her to behave in such a manner. But that's a whole other story that gets kind of trampled on.
Because Holiday is not living in a void, her traumatic past is part of who she is. But is the movie about Holiday and her addiction or is it about the United States government silence a voice that could topple society? If that wasn't enough, the movie gives a third focus, which is even more insane. Daniels tries marrying the two separate narratives with the inclusion of a Black FBI agent who must choose between his people and the admiration of his peers. I don't really get why Jimmy Fletcher would fall so head over heels for Billie Holiday outside of her celebrity. Fletcher knows the whole show. He knows the drug addicted singer and he sees her personality. My mind can't divorce the concept that Fletcher is almost attracted to the stardom of Billie Holiday because her personality doesn't really explain the element that a lot of stories like this have: "You haven't seen the real her." We see the real her and it seems toxic as all get out. Coupled with this grab bag is the notion that Billie Holiday may have had a female, white lover and definitely had an abusive husband. This stuff is important. That is its own movie. The Many Loves of Billie Holiday is a film.
There's no reason that this movie should fall on its face as hard as it does. There's very little redeemable about the film outside of a few standout performances. There is this element that really annoyed my wife and I, mainly because this editing thing was so poorly executed. The movie wanted to give the old-timey feel to a lot of scenes by either going black-and-white or mimicking a Super 8 film. But the actual product of these moments look like they were done in iMovie. There wasn't also a consistency between these segments. Is the past in black-and-white or is it in Super 8? If the transitions tried matching time passing, it wasn't really made clear at any point how much time had been involved in the story. It's just a bad movie that has no sense of progression or focus. There's nothing to root for except for the end of racism, which is a vague background player in the movie.
This movie had so much potential. It has three great stories that really could have been their own films. I would have watched a movie about Billie Holiday enduring the slings and arrows of a racist institution. I might have tolerated a movie about a public figure going through the problems of drugs and fame. I would have probably liked a movie about Billie Holiday finding her self-worth through her relationships. But all three? That's a movie that is just a KFC bowl of sadness.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.