Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
USA, 2021. Lee Daniels Entertainment, New Slate Ventures, Roth/Kirschenbaum Films. Screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. Cinematography by Andrew Dunn. Produced by Lee Daniels, Jordan Fudge, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Joe Roth, Tucker Tooley, Pamela Oas Williams. Music by Kris Bowers. Production Design by Daniel T. Dorrance. Costume Design by Paolo Nieddu. Film Editing by Jay Rabinowitz. Academy Awards 2020. Golden Globe Awards 2020.
It’s 1957, and Billie Holiday has sat down for an interview with “Reginald Lord Devine”, a fictionalized Quentin Crisp played by Leslie Jordan. Holiday is played by Andra Day, and she’s here to shake up the softer version you got of her in Sidney J. Furie’s thoroughly enjoyable, comprehensive 1972 biopic, as director Lee Daniels and screenwriter (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Suzan-Lori Parks have taken a chapter of Johann Hari’s book on the so-called War On Drugs, Chasing The Scream and used it as the basis for a focused look at one period in the life of the legendary singer. Two years away from her untimely death, Holliday is tired, angry and not in the least bit delusional about the price she’s had to pay for her success, so when Devine asks her why it was that she kept using heroin despite the fact that it made her the target of a Federal Department of Narcotics investigation, it inspires a flashback to the most controversial period in her career. It’s no surprise that a woman with her monumentally tragic childhood would find comfort in the artificial pleasure of heroin, but as she explains to the insensitive, faulty room-reading interviewer, it didn’t matter whether she did it or not, what the government really wanted was for her to stop singing That Song. The late forties is Holiday’s heyday, headlining the finest establishments while still subject to discrimination as to where she could eat or sleep, by this point famous for her sweet, sharp voice (which Day recreates perfectly) and legendary for her delivery of “Strange Fruit”, a song written in reaction to the government’s failure to pass anti-lynching legislation years earlier. The song, according to Narcotics head Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, thinking he can stretch his good-natured brand by playing a bigot), riles people up in the wrong ways and fills them with the wrong ideas (namely, it spells out America’s racist legacy in no uncertain terms) and after making it one of her signature tunes, Holiday is instructed not to sing it on pain of losing her cabaret licence and threatening her livelihood. Her addiction to drugs at this point is no secret and is taken advantage of as an excuse to keep police presence around her at all times, Anslinger just waiting to catch her in the act and make an example of her. From her own community she doesn’t get much relief, black music fans ask her why she can’t be a better example of black exceptionalism like Ella Fitzgerald, her only human comforts coming from the company of her closest friends and the three love affairs we get glimpses of here: a man who turns out to be a Narc (played by Trevante Rhodes) with whom she maintains a connection despite his getting her thrown in jail, the handsome John Levy (Tone Bell) and Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), who becomes her third husband despite no one else around her seeing his appeal (and who is presented very differently here than anyone who could ever be portrayed by the suaveness of Billy Dee Williams). Historic facts and human figures are played with fast and loose in this film because it’s not meant to be the next in a long line of biopics, rather the experience of this incredible figure filtered through a dramatic theme, namely that being black in America often means you can’t win no matter how well you play the game. Its theme is put across intelligently but without enough drama: the impressive power of “Strange Fruit” to make the government so afraid of one beautiful singer that they put resources into guarding her like she’s a nuclear menace is a fascinating story of the power of art to change the world, but it’s processed rather thoroughly in the first third of the film (as is the hypocrisy of her drug charges), which means that the rest of the movie is left to drag through beautifully shot interactions without a spine to cling to. The male characters are all hazy, dull personalities that never make an impression, Hedlund at 36 is particularly ineffective at playing the bullish narc who was in his late fifties at this point in the narrative, but you can’t tear your eyes away from Day’s electrifying performance, which is enough to make this film well worth the watch. There is no way to tell that the star has never had a significant role in a feature film before, let alone been the lead of one, she powers each scene with her multiple layers of elegance, integrity, self-destructive insecurity and rage, and never lets you see the wheels turning as she does it…and that’s before we’re treated to the exquisite musical performances, of which there are, thankfully, plenty. It’s no small feat to take on so famous a figure, but Day erases all your doubts by her first scene and erases the memory of all who came before her in the rest of the film (with apologies to the very worthy Miss Ross).