Andra Day is excellent as the famed singer in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” (Courtesy Hulu)

Andra Day is excellent as the famed singer in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” (Courtesy Hulu)

Singing soars in uneven ‘United States vs. Billie Holiday’

‘Test Pattern’ takes on timely issues, from racism to women’s health


“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

★★ 1/2

Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Natasha Lyonne

Directed by: Lee Daniels

Written by: Suzan-Lori Parks

Rated: R

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill appear in “Test Pattern,” a thoughtful debut written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill appear in “Test Pattern,” a thoughtful debut written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

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.


Test Pattern


Starring: Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller

Written and directed by: Shatara Michelle Ford

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Movies and TV

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

From left, California state Sen. Milton Marks, Sen. Nicholas Petris, Assemblyman John Knox and Save San Francisco Bay Association co-founders Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin and Kay Kerr watch Gov. Ronald Reagan sign the bill establishing the Bay Conservation and Development Commission as a permanent agency in 1969. (Courtesy Save The Bay)
Sixty years of Saving San Francisco Bay

Pioneering environmental group was started by three ladies on a mission

Temporary high-occupancy vehicle lanes will be added to sections of state Highway 1 and U.S. Highway 101, including Park Presidio Boulevard, to keep traffic flowing as The City reopens. <ins>(Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Transit and high-occupancy vehicle lanes coming to some of The City’s busiest streets

Changes intended to improve transit reliability as traffic increases with reopening

Tents filled up a safe camping site in a former parking lot at 180 Jones St. in the Tenderloin in June 2020.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Proposal for major expansion of safe sleeping sites gets cool reception in committee

Supervisor Mandelman calls for creation of more temporary shelter sites to get homeless off streets

A surplus of	mice on the Farallon Islands have caused banded burrowing owls to stay year round instead of migrating, longtime researchers say. <ins>(Courtesy Point Blue Conservation Science)</ins>
Farallon Islands researchers recommend eradicating mice

The Farallon Islands comprise three groups of small islands located nearly 30… Continue reading

Once we can come and go more freely, will people gather the way they did before COVID? <ins>(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner file photo)</ins>
What happens when the pandemic is over?

After experiencing initial excitement, I wonder just how much I’ll go out

Most Read