“The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which begins streaming on Hulu on Friday, highlights the legendary jazz singer’s defiant performances of an anti-lynching protest song — acts that prompted racist federal officials to try to ruin Holiday. A blistering hodgepodge, the movie sizzles when Andra Day, portraying Billie, is onscreen. But it’s too cluttered and messy to come together compellingly.
Director Lee Daniels, merging his vivid (“Precious”) and tamer (“The Butler”) tonal palettes and working from a screenplay by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (inspired by a portion of a book by Johann Hari), covers the final years in the life of Holiday (1915-1959). The civil rights movement is heating up, as are efforts to prevent African-American advancement.
Similar to the FBI’s attempt to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by exposing his extramarital affairs, a Federal Bureau of Narcotics effort aimed to destroy the career of the popular Holiday, a heroin user, by arresting her for drugs. As waged by the narcotics bureau’s racist chief, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the war on drugs was also a war on Black people.
Anslinger hoped to silence influential Black political and cultural figures by arresting them on narcotics charges in sites like Harlem jazz clubs. Anslinger tasks Black narcotics agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) with infiltrating Holiday’s inner circle, getting close to the singer, and busting her for heroin possession.
Billie spends a year in prison. After her release, she performs a triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall, but Anslinger continues to persecute her. He even plants drugs on her when she’s on her deathbed.
Like Diana Ross in 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” Day brings Billie to magnetic life in her big-screen debut. The music scenes are the movie’s high points.
Performing songs like “All of Me” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” (delivering that song’s abuse-themed lyrics in a tone suggesting a firsthand familiarity with violent relationships), Day looks and sounds rather like the supple-voiced Billie.
When Day’s Billie performs “Strange Fruit” — the song from which many Americans learned about the existence of lynching in the county (“Black bodies swingin’ in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees …” ) — the movie soars.
Unfortunately, however, excessive plot threads and storytelling techniques clutter the picture.
Most problematic is a Billie-Fletcher romance — an affair that likely never actually happened and is impossible to believe.
Day, while dazzling, receives little opportunity to deeply explore the psyche of Billie, a complicated tangle of childhood abuse, adult wounds, addictions, insecurities, and inspiring integrity and courage.
The filmmakers also fill the story with more minor characters — rough lovers, a husband, musicians, club owners, entourage members – than viewers can process. Friends like actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), who was also, reportedly, Billie’s lover, deserve greater focus, while a tediously shallow radio host (Leslie Jordan) merits none.
In the end, Day, Billie’s activism, and the song Billie champions are worthy of attention. But this vastly uneven movie doesn’t do them justice.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Natasha Lyonne
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Suzan-Lori Parks
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Following an interracial couple as they try to obtain a rape kit, “Test Pattern” (opening in the Roxie’s virtual cinema on Friday) considers how the health-care and law-enforcement systems, and even well-meaning romantic partners, fail to provide women, especially women of color, with essential services and understanding after a sexual assault.
Writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s subtle but stimulating debut feature is a love story, a social drama, and a non-preachy condemnation of women’s-health services. Ford presents #MeToo-era concerns through a Black female lens.
In Austin, Texas, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a Black nonprofit-agency professional, and Evan (Will Brill), a white tattoo artist, meet at a watering hole, begin dating, and become a loving couple.
One evening, Renesha and friend Amber (Gail Bean) are having a girls’-night conversation at a bar when two young men inject themselves into the discourse and supply substances. The next morning, a foggy Renesha finds herself in a strange room with a man and a headache and remembers almost nothing about the night before.
Later, Renesha, confused and apologizing for no reason, tells Evan about her situation. Evan insists that the two obtain a rape kit and file a police report.
One hospital after another proves shockingly lacking in compassion and unequipped to deal with sexual assault.
Evan, angry and unable to understand Renesha’s reluctance to report the assault, or what it’s like to be a Black woman treated coldly by institutions with racism and sexism in their bones, behaves insensitively. The pair’s relationship starts unraveling.
The drama, which also includes unsatisfying police efforts, ends underwhelmingly, and, like the harassment-themed “The Assistant,” is low on overt impact.
But Hall and Brill deliver essential, terrific chemistry, and Ford addresses numerous underlying topical concerns — consent, boundaries, self-blame, patriarchal attitudes, relationship power dynamics — perceptively and affectingly.
Starring: Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller
Written and directed by: Shatara Michelle Ford
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes