Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Andra Day, Trevonte Rhodes, Miss Lawrence, Tone Bell, Rob Morgan, Tyler James Williams, Garrett Hedlund, Leslie Jordan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Natasha Lyonne, Melvin Gregg, & Evan Ross
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I saw the trailer for this last week, and was immediately interested. I think I mentioned this in my review for #JudasAndTheBlackMessiah, but I genuinely enjoy docu-everything, especially when it provides insight to events and situations we’ve never heard associated with the individual being focused on. So the title alone had me intrigued because no one has ever put Billie Holiday and law in the same sentence in the many references I’ve had of her. Then, once the film started and I saw Lee Daniels come across the screen, I found myself even more interested because of this story being told from the lens of a Black gay man who has given us some pretty interesting series and movies in the past.
I found this film digestible. I don’t think it was done to the level of greatness and intention that it could’ve been, but it was entertaining.
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Below are my grades for key components in #TheUnitedStatesVsBillieHoliday that I find to be key in any story/film—Theme, Plot, Pacing, and Character Arc/Development. I think it is also important for me to add that moving forward, I will not include a plus-rating in my breakdown, but will continue with minus-ratings.
Additionally, I have added an entertainment factor scale to help you determine whether or not the film is something you’d be interested in taking time out of your weekend, evening, or day to watch. The scale range consists of: Worth the Watch, Interesting Enough (if looking for something new to start), & Don’t Rush.
I have also added a few non-spoiling thoughts, wonderings, and comments as I watched the film to help give some rationale for my grades and entertainment scale.
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Character Arc/Development: B-
Entertainment Factor: Interesting Enough
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1. First off, Andra Day… 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾 that Golden Globe win was deserved. She was really great to watch. 👍🏾👍🏾👍🏾
2. I also think the acting overall was really good. 👍🏾
3. Baby…that Trevonte Rhodes! Mm mm mm! When he was at home lounging on that couch! 😩😜😍
4. I found the subtle, yet blatant display of the toxic and tiring relationship Black women find themselves with some Black cis-hetero cis-men to be powerful and necessary. 👏🏾👏🏾👍🏾
5. Also, huge shout out to Miss Lawrence! I am so appreciative of [pronoun] representation. I was genuinely geeked to see [pronoun] hit the screen. I didn’t think I was such a subtle stan.🙌🏾🙌🏾
6. And to piggyback off of point #5, much thanks and appreciation goes to Lee Daniels as well who ensure Black LGBTQIA+ representation is present. 🙌🏾🙌🏾🙌🏾
7. I really enjoyed Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s character. She was a solid confidante. 👍🏾👍🏾
8. Um…Tone Bell! You are having quite the year, sir! Yes! 🙌🏾🙌🏾
9. Another point to piggyback off of point #5, was the use of the term “Bitch…” now, I might need to rewatch Netflix’s series of swear words again, but something in my spirit says that “bitch” wasn’t used as a term of community as it can be used today amongst women and LGBT folk…👀🤨🤷🏾♂️🥴
10. Okay, I’ll just get my other lusting shout outs now—Evan Ross! 😩😍 and Tyler James Williams 😩😩😍 and Melvin Gregg… yeeesssss!
11. There was something missing with the time span scenes while Billie was “away”… it was as if the film took time to actually follow the title, literally, and showcase what was going on with the United States while she was “away.” But I would’ve preferred more intentional, simultaneous storytelling to get more insight to what Billie was experiencing/learning/how she was making sense of things while the State was doing it’s thing. 🤷🏾♂️
12. There are 2 moments, musically, that are simply beautiful. One moment is this close up of her singing Strange Fruit, and you can hear the rawness of Andra’s voice as well as the sound of her ratings tapping her skin with certain notes. 😩👍🏾
13. I appreciated the displaying of the images. 👍🏾
14. I also think the messaging we get via “tour bus potty break,” and that amazing transition work of pain, consoling, and shared grief while also still having to present/“carry on with the show” was well done.👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾👍🏾
15. However, to piggyback off of point 14, I wanted more moments like that, especially since that was a core aspect of this racialized entanglement. 🤷🏾♂️
16. Scenes where Andra delivered vulnerability shrouded in toughness were the moments that pulled at me. The first being her “you going to search me?” And another being in the hotel room with “the Fed…” 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾
17. Also, the other beautiful moment mentioned in point #12 was her performance at the end. 🙌🏾🙌🏾
18. The ending credits and waltz scene were cute and hilarious. 🤣👍🏾
19. The line Trevonte Rhodes’ character tells Aslinger in the hospital…I didn’t like the delivery of it. 🥴🤷🏾♂️😩😉it felt too performative and obviously intentional.
20. OOOO… and to piggyback off of point #16, that hospital scene with her “husband and them…” was another moment Andra delivered. 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾
21. Chile, what did they have Leslie Jordan in? 🤦🏾♂️🤣
22. The weaving in of Billie’s background story via Miss Freddy and in conversation with Trevonte Rhodes’ character was appreciated, but I definitely would have loved more of that story to be seen from the very beginning to lay the groundwork for understanding the complexity of this beloved, Black woman’s story that was about to be told. 🤷🏾♂️
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Overall, #TheUnitedStatesVsBillieHoliday has a solid cast that carried the entertainment of this film very well. The story does fall a little short, and what I noticed to be 2 possible reasons are: 1. The title doesn’t really support what we end up seeing, and 2. The films has a tv-series vibe that comes across at times. Many of the scenes, individually, gave me these weekly, episodic moments you’d find in some of Lee Daniels’ music-focused series that he pretty much sewed together into a long, cohesive story. This worked for engagement, but not necessarily with truly unpacking the life of Billie Holiday.
I would have loved to actually see less of Billie Holiday the singer/musical artist (except for the song in question, in very relevant contexts) and more of Billie Holiday the person. Even the closing caption of “what happened” was something I would have actually loved to see in action to close out the film as a means of displaying the incessantly disgusting attitudes and treatment toward this woman who was simply existing—for others, while trying for herself.