Life & Culture

Film review: The United States vs Billie Holiday

Andra Day is stunning in this biopic of a jazz legend, says Linda Marric



Grammy nominated singer Andra Day puts in a stunning performance as troubled jazz legend Billie Holiday in this handsomely crafted biopic from director Lee Daniels, on Sky Cinema. Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks from Johann Hari’s book Chasing The Scream, The United States vs Billie Holiday has already earned newcomer Day a Golden Globe nomination, sending her well on the way to global stardom.

It’s the early 1940s and Billie Holiday has been dazzling jazz crowds with her raspy and beautifully mournful voice. Addicted to heroin and mistreated by almost every man in her life, the troubled star’s life unravels when she becomes the target of a spiteful government campaign under the guise of the “war on drugs”. Their real motivation is in fact to stop the singer from performing her famous ballad Strange Fruit, a rousing cry against lynching and racial inequality (written by Jewish songwriter Abel Meeropol).

The film delves into Holiday’s relationships, notably with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) and her supposed affair with Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes), a federal agent tasked with infiltrating her inner circle.

Much like Holiday herself, Daniels’ film is flawed, but shows moments of real genius. Layered with magical realism and some commendably understated performances throughout, the film refuses to sanitise the star’s life by showing her, warts and all.

This film feels both timely and overdue, with Day’s impressive portrayal of one of the most iconic artists of all time, centre stage.

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