By Leah Greenblatt
February 19, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST
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Credit: Takashi Seida/Paramount Pictures

"All of me," she famously crooned. "Why not take all of me?" And Lee Daniels' The United States vs. Billie Holiday (on Hulu Feb. 26) takes the jazz icon at her word, wedging nearly everything it can into the movie's striving, sensational two-hour-plus runtime. Hers was a life that often played like a melodrama — addiction, heartbreak, shadowy government conspiracies — and so Daniels largely chooses to portray it as one, often to messy and outsized effect.

But he also has as his muse Andra Day, a Grammy-nominated singer with no previous acting experience who delivers a debut performance so magnetically whole-bodied that her presence seems to rearrange the atoms of every room she walks into. Her Billie is alternately languid and ferocious, spiky and stripped bare (literally): an artist whose clotted-cream-and-nicotine voice wove a singular magic into every song.

For all that volatility and charisma, she can also sometimes feel like the subtlest thing in a film that tends to hit both its high and low notes with a mallet, even when the best fall in between. The real-life vs. of the title refers to white-collared villains like Harry Anslinger (played here with blunt-force cruelty by an incongruously young and pretty Garrett Hedlund). A Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner who served under five presidents from Hoover to Kennedy, Anslinger made it his personal mission throughout the 1940s and '50s to stop Holiday from performing "Strange Fruit," her seminal reckoning with the annihilation of Black bodies in the American South.

He and his government goons were the reason that her private heroin habit — a salve for years of pain, including the rape she endured as a young girl — became national headlines; it also gave them a convenient cover to harass, imprison, and at least temporarily silence her, in part because anyone with a criminal record could not hold a cabaret license. Though Holiday had little trouble finding bad guys closer to home: Her lovers included a string of aspiring Svengalis who often left her with black eyes, broken ribs, and empty bank accounts.  

Those men seem to come and go steadily on screen, unlike the loyal group of hangers-on and employees (including Miss Lawrence and a great, cantankerous Da'Vine Joy Randolph) who make up her entourage — though none are quite as devoted as a federal agent named Jimmy Fletcher. One of very few Black citizens with a badge in that era, the real Fletcher cultivated an unusual kind of friendship with Holiday; movie Fletcher (Moonlight's Trevante Rhodes), however, instigates a full-fledged romance.

That's one of many liberties that the script, by Pulitzer-winning playwright and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks (2019's Native Son), takes. It also tends to lean heavily on exposition and convenient shorthand, making characters explain themselves in ways that seem more designed to move the narrative forward than echo the rhythms of real life. As he did in 2013's The Butler too, Daniels has a way of molding the chaotic murk of history into something neat and shiny — whether it be the roots of Holiday's addiction or the decidedly 2021 cut of Rhodes' rippling torso.

Still, there's a tactile thrill to his visual set pieces (the custom gowns by Prada are deliriously gorgeous) and a headlong propulsion to the story that only begins to slacken in the film's rickety final third. And 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 — all the classic original vocals have been fully and faithfully rerecorded — but the bottom of her soul, too. Grade: B

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