Andra Day, the powerful singer and songwriter famous for "Rise Up," is making her starring role debut in Lee Daniels' The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. The United States Vs. Billie Holiday stars Andra Day as Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer. The FBI targeted Billie Holiday for using narcotics, but they ultimately wanted to stop her from singing her song, "Strange Fruit."
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday releases on Hulu this Friday, February 26, and now that reviews have started to drop we're getting an impression of what critics are saying about Andra Day's leading lady debut.
CinemaBlend's very own Eric Eisenberg saw the film for the home team, and gave it 2.5 stars out of five. He praised Andra Day's performance as Billie Holiday in the film, saying that "she has all the confidence in the world and a strong dramatic presence," but also found the film to be scattered in its storytelling and style. He wrote,
The United States vs. Billie Holiday doesn’t so much feel like a film based on a screenplay as much as it does a series of index cards pinned to a corkboard.
Owen Gleiberman of Variety calls The United States vs. Billie Holiday “scattered but scorching.” He notes that, though volatile, the movie lacks “a full dramatic center and the momentum that would flow out of it,” which is perhaps the consequence of Trevante Rhodes’ character, Jimmy Fletcher, having too passive of a role in the film –though Fletcher is the second biggest role. Gleiberman does praise Andra Day’s performance, saying:
The great singer of “Rise Up” simply becomes Billie Holiday, in her signature orchid, with a presence as sinuous as her voice, which she plays like a jazz instrument, stylizing emotions into a sound that pierces and caresses.
David Ehrlich of IndieWire also praises Andra Day’s performance (which earned her a Golden Globe nod for Best Actress - Drama) as Billie Holiday, noting that “Day embodies Holiday as a portrait of courage in spite of everything else.” He continues, complimenting Andra Day’s strong performance despite Lee Daniels’ “clumsy” storytelling. He describes Daniels’ direction:
Daniels seems caught between his instinct for impressionism and the more journalistic bent of the source material, as abstract sequences — like the time-bending heroin montage that bleeds Holiday’s formative days as a brothel cleaner into the aftermath of a lynching she happens across while looking for a place to pee on tour — are so clumsily threaded into the film’s biopic structure that the whole movie smudges into an overlong blur of stuff, with Day in the middle, fighting to be heard.
David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter also praised Andra Day’s performance in her first leading role, calling her “dazzling.” Rooney also heavily criticizes the storytelling, describing it as “a mess.” He continues, saying:
Day mesmerizes even when Lee Daniels' unwieldy bio-drama careens all over the map with stylistic inconsistency and narrative dysfunction, settling for episodic electricity in the absence of a robust connective thread.
Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly notes a “tactile thrill” to Lee Daniels’ visual set pieces “and a headlong propulsion to the story that only begins to slacken in the film's rickety final third.” Greenblatt calls storytelling somewhat "messy," but praised Andra Day’s portrayal of Holiday like other critics, saying:
At the center of it always is the mercurial, spectacular Day: Though her resemblance to the real Holiday is mostly circumstantial, she conjures Billie's blues not just from her own throat… but the bottom of her soul, too.
Though the storytelling seems to be heavily criticized, Andra Day's first leading role has been widely praised.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday releases on Hulu this Friday, February 26, so we'll have to wait until then to see how audiences react. We'll also have to wait until this Sunday, February 28th, to see if Andra Day brings home the Golden Globes for Best Actress in a Drama and for Best Original Song, "Tigress & Tweed," which she co-wrote with Raphael Saadiq. While you're waiting to see The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, check out the rest of the movies coming out this year.