★★★★ - THE TIMES
- An astonishing, red-raw performance from the singer and novice actress Andra Day is the main draw in this excoriating biopic about the FBI’s relentless pursuit of the jazz singer Billie Holiday. Adapted from a small section of Johann Hari’s non-fiction book about drug criminalisation (Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs), the film’s Oscar-nominated director, Lee Daniels (Precious), has focused specifically on the relationship between an increasingly harried and heroin-addled Holiday (Day) and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the black FBI agent sent out to snag her.
It’s written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who uses some dramatic licence in the depiction of the central relationship as an epic, life-defining and long-lasting affair (Fletcher, a footnote in Hari’s book, was merely smitten with Holiday).
Yet this hardly matters for the real relationship in the film, and the one that informs its guttural dynamic, is between Holiday and the FBI, as embodied here by the anti-drugs crusader Harry J Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund). Holiday’s insistence on singing the anti-lynching protest song Strange Fruit fuels the obscene hatred of Anslinger, an unashamed racist who worries that the popular track will become “a starter gun for the civil rights movement’’.
He hires Fletcher, he plants drugs on Holiday, she goes to prison, she comes out of prison, and she plays a comeback gig in Carnegie Hall. And all along the film is waiting, biding its time and deftly layering our sympathies towards Holiday until it suddenly returns, at roughly one hour and 20 minutes, to the moment in our protagonist’s childhood when she witnessed the harrowing aftermath of a lynching.
Daniels has displayed lurid film-making instincts in the past, but here his judgment is impeccable. The details of the scene (children wailing at the feet of hanged parents), and the subsequent recall in Holiday’s haunted eyes, leave you in no doubt that the singer’s life was lived within the blast wave of racial trauma.
Taking heroin and singing Strange Fruit are, the film implies, her only relief. And when Anslinger, after forcing Holiday into sobriety, also tries to take that song from her, she roars with incredulity, “He wants me to stop singing what’s in my soul.”
Day is a revelation. Her rendition of several Holiday standards, including Strange Fruit (delivered in its entirety, after the gruelling flashback), is eerily authentic and rasp-perfect. While her dramatic performance is also bold, exposed and, yes, note-perfect. She has been nominated for a Golden Globe for the performance. Which is one of the few things they have unarguably got right this year.
- Kevin Maher, THE TIMES
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now playing at Light House Cinema!