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'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' review: Andra Day gives a powerful performance

Andra Day stars in "The United States vs

Andra Day stars in "The United States vs Billie Holiday." Credit: Hulu/Takashi Seida

MOVIE "The United States vs. Billie Holiday"

WHERE Streaming on Hulu

WHAT IT’S ABOUT In 1939, the jazz singer Billie Holiday was introduced to "Strange Fruit," a chilling ballad about American lynchings. After Holiday debuted it later that year before a hushed crowd at Café Society, an integrated hot spot in Greenwich Village, "Strange Fruit" became her signature song and a harbinger of the Civil Rights Era to come. Though white audiences sometimes walked out mid-performance, Holiday insisted on performing it on tour, often as a finale to drive home its message: "Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze."

Holiday, nicknamed Lady Day, would become synonymous with show-biz tragedy, a blazing talent who succumbed to drugs and alcohol at the age of 44, but Lee Daniels’ new biopic on the singer argues that it was "Strange Fruit" that did her in. Based on a chapter in Johann Hari’s 2015 book on America’s war on drugs, the film shows how Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a vehement racist, hounded Holiday on drug charges as a way of silencing her voice.

MY SAY The bigger the star, the messier the life — and the weaker the biopic becomes. Filmmakers tend to squeeze in too many important moments and notable figures while struggling to show us what made the central figure so electrifying. It’s a Herculean task, one that proves too great even for an ambitious director like Daniels ("Monster’s Ball," "Precious").

That said, miss this movie and you’ll miss an astounding, scorched-earth performance by singer and first-time actress Andra Day in the title role. Day already sounded unabashedly like Holiday (she chose her stage name as a tribute), and here she disappears into the role completely. It’s the kind of part that even a peak-career actress would kill for — glamorous, tempestuous, doomed — and Day throws herself into it headlong. (Maybe playing Holiday requires a certain rawness; Diana Ross also made her acting debut as Holiday in 1972’s "Lady Sings the Blues.")

Too bad the rest of this film is so disjointed and frustrating. Various figures weave in and out of Holiday’s life, including her abusive husband Louis McKay (Rob Morgan) and the screen siren Tallulah Bankhead (a rumored lover, played by Natasha Lyonne). One constant is the ruthless Anslinger, a one-dimensional villain played by Garrett Hedlund. The other is Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes, "Moonlight"), a secret agent who befriends her, jails her, then somehow woos her. The screenplay, by Suzan-Lori Parks, hops around maddeningly, while Daniels tries out different styles — montages, dream-sequences, snapshots — that only further confuse.

Yet through it all, there’s Day. Over the closing credits she sings another Holiday standard, "All of Me," alone on a dark stage, like a concert in the afterlife. Her delivery is heartbroken, desperate, defiant. "You took the part that once was my heart," she sings, "so why not take all of me?"

BOTTOM LINE Andra Day’s raw performance makes this unfocused biopic worth watching.

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