Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Best Actress category at this year’s Oscars could go any number of ways as titan actors Viola Davis, Frances McDormand and Carey Mulligan race for the finish line. Perhaps most amazing of all, a woman with no acting experience seems to keep the pace alongside them: Andra Day.
Leave it to Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels to create a film as daring and wild as The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The movie recounts the final years of bisexual singer Billie Holiday as she struggles with heroin and sex addiction…not to mention a decades-long vendetta by the racist US anti-drug Czar Harry Anslinger (Garett Hedlund). As her anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” becomes a rallying to the emerging Civil Rights movement, Anslinger works to destroy Holiday in hopes of quashing the push for equality.
As a whole, we concede that The United States vs. Billie Holiday is uneven. Lee Daniels’ direction reminds us of the late Marlon Brando, particularly in his latter-day period. Post-1970 or so, Brando refused to memorize his lines, preferring to improvise or have scripts hidden on the set. He also became known for his odd character traits, such as wearing a fruit basket on his head (seriously). When it worked–as with Apocalypse Now or Last Tango in Paris–Brando did electrifying work. When it didn’t, such as in The Island of Dr. Moreau, it was laughably hideous.
As a director, Daniels fits a similar pattern: he knows no fear, and never resists a chance to show off his audacity. When it doesn’t, good lord. But when it does, it’s absolutely spellbinding. The United States vs. Billie Holiday features Daniels in both modes: his direction shines in a gobsmacking scene of a lynching that plays for several excruciating minutes without a cut. Other scenes, on the other hand, feel like a low-rent TV movie.
Despite it all, in the title role, Day gives one of the best performances of the year, a feat rendered all the more impressive considering she does all her own singing, and sounds a perfect double for Ms. Holiday. Her work will go down in history as one of the most auspicious debuts in cinematic history. Daniels also ties Holiday’s plight to a larger, still-ongoing narrative about racism in the US–something other Holiday biopics haven’t had the courage to address.
Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne and Leslie Jordan all do fine supporting work here, though The United States vs. Billie Holiday belongs to Andra Day. Her performance paints a vibrant image of a queer legend headstrong and self-destructive. She will also remind viewers that activism comes in all forms…even in a song. Will Academy voters heed her siren cry? Odds are against her, though we can’t count this diva out just yet.
Streams on Hulu.