The Conservative Critic
The Conservative Critic: The United States V Billie Holiday
As award season approaches, last minute entries are flooding streaming services and limited theater releases everywhere. Lee Daniels’s, the United States VS. Billie Holiday released to Hulu on February 26, 2021 after it’s lead actress, Andra Day, had already received a nomination for Best Actress from the Golden Globes and the Critic Choice Awards. Beyond its leading lady, the film itself received no overall nominations and nothing yet for Lee Daniels, any of the other actors or the writers. The only other nominees for the film were makeup artists and songwriters.
There is a reason. Here is the Conservative Critic review of The United States VS. Billie Holiday (Holiday) where we ask “Was in Entertaining?” “Did it have artistic/intellectual value?’ and most importantly, “Was it liberal propaganda?”
The United States VS. Billie Holiday
Overall Score: Bad
There is a good reason for the lack of accolades for the overall film and that reason is that it’s pretty bad.
The film follows a time period in the life of the famous American singer, Billie Holiday between her initial arrest for the use of heroin to her death at the age of 44. The focus of the film, ostensibly, is the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ unusual obsession with the singer and her activist song “Strange Fruit” in the early days of the United State’s war on drugs and the later days of the American South’s war with its own identity as it failed to curb routine violence against innocent black people.
From the ghastly writing to meandering timeline and interminable length, the film lacks both authenticity and glamor leaving its viewer with nothing left but a disconnected discomfort with America’s shameful past…or maybe drug use…or maybe its the war on drugs we’re upset with. It’s hard to decide and the film never chooses for you exactly what you’re supposed to feel shocked or guilty about and the viewer is too disinterested to by the conclusion to feel compelled to work it out for themselves.
Was it Entertaining?
Rating: No it wasn’t
One of the main factors in a successful biopic – particularly a musical – is to bring the viewer into the life of its subject. “Holiday” created a distance between the viewer and the subject which – while perhaps intentional – made it difficult to relate to her and even more difficult to root for her. Instead of the pulpy and emotional character drama that it really wanted to be – it was basically a long series of cabaret style song performances with some raspy dialog in-between and frankly watching Andra Day just perform the songs with no additional character development would have been more interesting than the 20 minute interludes between each set.
At an arrogant two hours and ten minutes, you’d think the film was full of action and plot and movement but in reality not much actually happens between the start of the film and the conclusion. It is both boring and uncomfortable but the discomfort is never quite enough to make it emotional (except at one part which I’ll get to). And further – I do not feel like I know much more about Billie Holiday, the Federal Department of Narcotics, or Lynching in the American south than I did before watching.
Did it have artistic/intellectual value?
Rating: Very low quality
Despite Lee Daniels’s reputation as an award winning director including an Academy Award nomination for his 2009 film, Precious, Daniels seems to have lost his way in the making of “Holiday.”
To begin with the writing was very bad and it’s hard for any film to recover from a poorly written script. The dialog was contrived and the plot had all the nuance of an Elvis impersonator wrapped in a feather boa wandering the Las Vegas strip.
One of the opening scenes featured a room of bad bad federal government men, plotting to take down Billie with cigars in their mouth, smoke in the air and malice written across their foreheads (basically). They might as well have been ogres using the bones of their victims to pick their teeth. It was cartoonish and ridiculous and the film suffered from this kind of repeated failure (or perhaps unwillingness) to capture even the faintest hint of rational motivation for its villains.
Some of the film’s choices are so baffling it leaves me to wonder if Daniels and the film’s writer, Suzan-Lori Parks have ever met a human person. Or perhaps COVID quarantines have left them a little too isolated. At one point the film’s most dynamic character, a federal agent who falls in love with Billie while assigned to her case, watches her interview on TV and inexplicably grabs a glass bottle of milk from off screen and takes a big gulp. I have to assume this character was directed to do so to create a comparison between Billie’s rampant drug use and his “Good American Boy” values – but needless to say it was a head-scratching moment at a minimum.
The dialog was cringey and forced. The set ups were obvious. The suspension of disbelief was non-existent. Which was another one of the primary problems.
The film is a biopic and yet it seems like none of the characters including Billie herself are at all flushed out. There is nothing in the story that feels true. Even if the events of the film are completely true (questionable), they are displayed as museum audio description versions of reality where you know it’s real but it still feels a bit like a child’s storybook at bedtime. While the drug use was prevalent, the sex scenes were fairly graphic, and the lynching content was heavy the whole composition left me feeling like I was watching a middle school play version of reality.
The film also totally lacked identity. The film at first presents itself as a story about how the federal government pretended to care about Billie Holiday’s drug use and involvement in drug distribution when really they just wanted to stop her from singing “Strange Fruit” which exposed the horrors of lynching in the America South. However, throughout the film the message gets lost and at many times pivoted to a conversation about the ethics of the war on drugs. While the war on drugs might be a worthy subject of film, if the federal agents were actually motivated by jailing black Americans for drugs then the entire point of the film (which is supposed to be that drugs were all a front for the hatred of her song and support of lynching) no longer makes any sense. So which was it? Are they really interested in her drug use because the war on drugs was unfairly targeted at black people? Or did they not actually care about the drugs and really just wanted her to stop singing her anti-lynching song?
Further – the film walked a very drunk line on the subject of drug use. Per their depiction, “Holiday” was clearly a heroin addict and heroin clearly made her life much worse than when she was clean. Despite this fact, the film constantly made the argument that Holiday was a victim and the government mostly made up her drug problems. At one point the love-struck federal agent character makes a swoony speech about how the bad bad feds only hate Billie because she’s made so much of herself as a beautiful black woman. And yet, just a few scenes earlier – Billie had made him do heroin to prove he was loyal to her. No big deal I guess?
The acting wasn’t as bad as the rest of the composition of the film but it wasn’t great. Trevonte Rhodes as the love-struck Fed, Jimmy Fletcher, was forgettable at his greatest moments and Andra Day frequently tipped into ham.
There were two stand out performances in the film and one was the criminally underrated Garrett Hedlund who portrayed the film’s main villain, real life Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief, Harry Anslinger. Hedlund has charisma for days and always brings an electric presence to the screen and his role as the mustached purveyor of government conspiracy in this film was no different. Despite his limited screen time, you learned to hate Hedlund’s Anslinger as if you knew him personally.
The other was Andra Day’s performance of “Strange Fruit” midway through the film which almost certainly is what landed her the two major award nominations of the season. Despite all the films many many flaws and Day’s overreacting (to be fair I do think she did the best she could with very bad material), when she went eyes straight to screen singing Holiday’s chilling song it was deliciously haunting. It is skin crawling and physically uncomfortable to hear the voice of Day (singer of the hit, Rise Up) reliving the violence of the era in verse. The emotion of the three or four minute segment was as palpable as if Billie Holiday was standing right in front of me. The tragedy and violence that dripped out of her performance was almost too much for me to bear watching. It was not enough to save the film, but it was enough to save Day’s entire performance and to make the film a worthwhile venture for Lee.
Was is liberal propaganda?
Rating: Absolutely yes in every single imaginable way
The entire premise of the movie hinges on the absolutely false liberal driven narrative that lynching is still legal in the United States. They even did that thing liberal movies do where they roll credits and have special notes like “In 2020 the Emmitt Till Anti-Lynching Act was considered in the Senate” DRAMATIC PAUSE “It still hasn’t passed.”
To be very clear: Lynching is absolutely illegal in the United States. Not only is a felony, a federal crime and it is illegal in every single state in the union. It is also considered a federally punishable hate crime.
Lynching is the abohrrent practice of beating and hanging black people as a form of twisted civilian ‘law enforcement” which took place primarily (but not only) in the American South after the civil war and through the civil rights movement. It is a vile, inhuman practice of murderous thugs and racist and has no place in a free society.
In 2021, murder and aggravated assault are both felony crimes. And murder or aggravated assault motivated by hatred of the victims race is a hate crime under federal and state law with minimum sentences and penalties including civil liabilities in almost every circumstance. It is an absolute lie that lynching is permissable in any state in the United States or that lynching does not carry severe federal penalties including the bonus penalties associated with hate crimes.
This is why in 2020, Senator Rand Paul filibustered the “anti-lynching” bill which would have imposed new lower standards of evidence for proving race related motivations and increase minimum sentencing (Senator Paul opposes all minimum sentencing). I find it deeply ironic that the left has been championing a group of individuals shouting about the unfairness of the US criminal justice system (re: BLM) for the last several years but also is willing to continue to impose minimum sentencing and low evidentiary standards in our court system.
Ultimately, Lynching is definitely illegal since it is violent, racially motivated murder and the notion that lawmakers have done nothing to prevent it is just lazy lying garbage. This fact doesn’t dismiss the horrors of lynching or the suffering of black Americans throughout history. But it is, nevertheless, a fact which the film willfully misrepresented to indoctrinate masses to the will of trial lawyers and progressivists.
The United States VS. Holiday was badly written, badly done and badly intentioned. It is not worth watching except to catch the single musical performance of Day singing “Strange Fruit” and perhaps to expose yourself to the song in the first place if you have never heard its haunting truth before.