Without dusting off the codes of the biopic, Lee Daniels offers an intimate and fascinating portrait of a tormented figure of jazz.
“The scent of sweet and fresh magnolia, then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” On its own, this line from “Strange Fruit” could sum up the daring enterprise of Lee daniels, when he decides to adapt this fragment of Billie Holiday’s life. The idyllic utopia of a life rocked by jazz opposes a deadly environment where segregation is in full swing. The initial contextualization is a reminder, a history lesson certainly didactic but necessary: when Lady Day sings “Strange Fruit”, a whole section of the government and the FBI is ganging up against it.
The initial spirit of the biopic left one to fear the worst and the first half hour, although enriching, is more like a banal history lesson than a real attempt at cinema. It is therefore a real relief when the story turns to other tracks than that of the political conflict of the time, a significant reflection of the defects of a much more contemporary society. By avoiding giving in to the temptation of the pamphlet, Daniels dwells more on the narrative potential that conceals the complex figure of the singer. In search of benchmarks in a hot period, Holiday does not know whether it should become the figurehead of legitimate anti-racist claims or the archetype of a musical revival. Failing to find answers, there is only one fatal remedy left: taking drugs and excessive heroin consumption.
From realistic adaptation to the deployment of a purely cinematographic fiction, there is only one step Daniels crosses brilliantly. Silent witness of the drama experienced by the singer, the character of agent Jimmy Fletcher pulls the story towards daring spheres. His evolution in contact with Holiday fascinates and moves: the journalist, a taciturn marginal with a seductive smile, is in reality an FBI agent, whose anti-drug convictions lead to the imprisonment of the jazz icon. In the second part of the film, he becomes the singer’s broken lover, and the only way out of the fatal microcosm in which she locks herself. The accurate interpretation of Trevante Rhodes participates in the felt attachment to the character of Fletcher.
It is when Holiday is with Fletcher that the biopic develops its best ideas. To explain all the interest of this relation, one can observe the indices disseminated by Daniels when he films the musician, especially during scenes where she is contemplated in the many mirrors of his dressing rooms. Faced with political pressure (that exposed by the title of the film), two possibilities overlap for Holiday: either follow Fletcher and flee the addiction to approach the joyful shores of the stay in the countryside, or give in to his chimeras that embrace and try to precipitate it towards its faults. The sequence of the country stay, which gave a glimpse of the hoped-for stability, appears like an illusory bucolic paradise. The face that the heroine observes in the reflection of the mirror is the one she would like to wear, like an echo of happiness that she only manages to achieve during brief moments frozen in time. We think of this final discussion with Fletcher on his deathbed, an idyllic escape abruptly interrupted by the intervention of Louis Mckay, abominable deformed reflection of the purity and benevolence of Fletcher. The staging pattern is repeated with violence, when the same Louis came to break another of those sublime moments, a game of baseball. The drama suggested when Billie, struck by her partner, collapsed while smashing a mirror, is gradually confirmed. The broken mirror becomes the allegory of locked access to the dreamed ideal, the other side of a fascinating mirror.
This strict alternation between two faces completes the painting of a complex and touching portrait, where the imperfection of the characters gives rise to real visions of cinema, like this extraordinary sequence during which Fletcher penetrates the singer’s psyche. We can only praise the intentions of Lee daniels, especially when he prefers the exploration of psychology to the political apologue. Placed in the background, the antagonist of the FBI is only a stereotype already well known to all. This choice attests to a pleasing bias: that of flattering a form of expressionist freedom unknown to the classic biopic, far from a useless demagogue tone, which offers a setting for the impeccable interpretation of Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes, the good side of the mirror.
• Original title : The United States vs. Billie Holiday • Production : Lee Daniels • Scenario: Suzan-Lori Parks, after Johann Hari • Main actors : Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Nataha Lyonne • Release date : June 2, 2021 • Duration: 2h10min