2021 Oscar Reviews: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[One nomination for Best Actress (Andra Day)]

Oof. The gist of my review seems to line up pretty closely with every pro review I’ve skimmed since watching the film, which in turn seem to line up with awards buzz. The short version: Andra Day was good as Billie Holiday, appropriately earning herself a Golden Globe in her very first-ever acting role. The rest of the movie is, at best, a bit flawed, and at worst, pretty dang terrible. There is virtually no chance of this being a best picture nominee, but Day could very well be up for an acting Oscar, hence I’m reviewing this movie despite it being garbage.

I guess I’ll start with the positives: The basic story is super interesting, and I learned a lot. I’ve been a fan of Billie Holiday’s music for a very long time, but I was shocked to realize just how little I knew about any aspects of her tragic life, let alone of her central role in America’s racist war on drugs. It’s very tough, traumatic material (this is an understatement), and you come away disgusted and ashamed. At least, you should/would have if the film did a decent job with its depiction. It doesn’t make much sense that I could step away from something so emotional, true, and intriguing feeling… frankly, just really bored. I wondered if this was just movie fatigue again, but then I saw all the pro reviews and drew a sigh of relief. I was not alone. Pretty much everyone felt this way to some degree (one review said almost exactly this- how can you make a movie this boring out of subject matter this interesting? The real reviewer phrased this much better, but I’m having trouble re-finding it so I can properly attribute it.)

The easiest thing to point to for the film’s failure is the absolutely terrible script. I mean, it is really, really bad. I was in shock when I found out the writer had a Pulitzer. Something went horribly wrong here. Some examples: our bad guy narcs spell out their evil racist plans like mustache-twirling villains from a cartoon. One of our black undercover narcs approaches another lack undercover narc and says (basically) “We are black federal agents. We are being used by the fed because no white boy could go undercover in Harlem. We are being used by them against our own people. That is what is happening here. Does anybody watching not understand that that is what is happening? Should I draw a flow chart? Explain it again for emphasis? Or just randomly stop talking in the same way that I just randomly started proclaiming myself?” In a moment that I think is supposed to be comic relief, we attend a “family funeral,” and Billie’s friend (whose identity is never explained but who was in half the scenes) says “it is a dog. This funeral is for her dog. I told you not to feed the dog human food. That is why your dog is dead and we are at a dog funeral for a dog.” For some reason when a random dude shows up at Billie’s door, she invites him in and starts waltzing for zero perceptible reason. It’s just all the most absolutely unnatural dialogue I’ve ever seen in a movie that wasn’t intentionally trying to be unnatural. Most of these examples were very early in the film, which put me as a viewer in a cruddy mood for the rest of the film.

The movie was also kinda confusing, and this was another point where I was glad to see other reviewers in the same boat as me. A bunch of men kinda appear and disappear and we don’t really get a sense of who they are or what their deal is, besides I guess everyone wants to fuck and/or fuck over Billie Holiday. Apparently she was married three times, and supposedly (based on post-movie reading) we saw her being married to 3 different people. I somehow missed an entire husband somewhere in there. No clue what was happening there.

This movie bears many similarities to last year’s Judy, the Judy biopic starring Renee Zellweger in her Oscar-winning role as Judy Garland. Both show a beloved starlet fighting drug addiction after a traumatic childhood, and both feature great performances by their leads but didn’t earn much other praise awards-wise. But though Billie’s story is crazier and has much more material to mine, Judy was just soooo much better. I think it’s the approach we take to the starlet in question. In Judy, we as viewers get to love our troubled superstar, just like the Judy in real life. But this Billie depiction just feel like another victimization, and we the audience are the abusers. We don’t get to shower her with praise, as we know her audiences did. Instead, we are repeatedly stuck uncomfortably staring at her naked body, and idly sitting around while man after man smacks her around as publicly and nonchalantly as a husband on House Hunters complaining to his wife about the lack of mancave. If the idea is to just straight-up make us feel bloody terrible about everything, I guess that was somewhat effective. But it’s not something that should have been attempted, because it doesn’t do the amazing Billie Holiday justice. We do not get to appreciate the stunningly amazing person that she was. We do not get to shower her with the accolades she deserves. We do not get to see her loving nature or her sense of humor. I am by no means suggesting that we should ignore the terrible things that happened to Billie Holiday- that we should sweep them under the rug. But there are more empathetic and caring ways to share these stories, and this movie failed to implement them.

As for the only likely Oscar nomination: I find it hard to judge Andra Day’s performance, since I have never heard of her before in my life. I have no clue how much acting she’s really doing, what her range is, what she’s like in real life, etc. Is she just playing herself? Is the real Andra Day a super depressed traumatized sadsack with a golden voice? She’s definitely got the golden voice. Regardless, she managed to pull off her role much more believably than others in the film trying to deliver their campy shitty lines, and gave an iota of respectability and worth to an otherwise cruddy flick. So yeah, I think she was great in this film. If she scores a nomination, I feel she deserves it for this role. But I’ll be very interested to watch the rest of acting career develop (if it develops at all- Andra Day is primarily a musician).

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