February 19, 2021
Lee Daniels’ bizarre decision to root this account of the singer’s late years in supposition about her romance with a federal agent cheapens her courage
The United States vs Billie Holiday review – Lee Daniels misguided biopic | Peter Bradshaws film of the week
Lee Daniels’ bland, stilted, TV-movie treatment of the final years in the life of jazz singing legend Billie Holiday, imprisoned on a drugs charge and officially harassed long after her release, is fatally compromised by its own misjudged and obtuse romantic fantasy. The film rhapsodises that, after a lifetime of abuse from men, and a persistent campaign of victimisation from federal agents enraged by her courageous anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, Holiday’s emotional life was redeemed by a gallant, secret love affair with an undercover federal agent called Jimmy Fletcher; that is, someone working for the very people who had been making her life a misery.
Holiday is played by Singer Andra Day and Fletcher by Trevante Rhodes; Garrett Hedlund plays Harry Anslinger, the tight-lipped racist chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Fletcher was one of the African American agents employed by Anslinger after the second world war to infiltrate jazz clubs to root out drug use – and to make drugs the pretext for clamping down on black political culture. Until recently, Fletcher had been considered a real-life but minor figure in Holiday’s life: he hung around the fringes of the jazz scene, befriended Holiday and finally to her fury actually arrested her. He later told Holiday’s would-be biographer, Linda Kuehl, in a taped interview in the 1970s that he always regretted the betrayal, that she had forgiven him and affectionately inscribed a copy of her autobiography for him.
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