“it was called ‘america vs. billie’ holiday,'” the jazz legend wrote in his 1956 autobiography, “and that’s how it felt.” Holiday’s 1947 conviction, when she was sentenced to a year and a day for drug possession, was just one chapter in a sustained campaign against the singer, whose renditions of Abel Meeropol’s harrowing anti-lynching ballad Strange Fruit were they had become a lightning rod for civil rights awareness and activism.
holiday’s adamant refusal to stop singing that song was perhaps the greatest indication of her indomitable spirit, forged in the fire of a tough-as-nails upbringing that saw her survive horrific childhood abuse to become a superstar in a time of death often. racial and sexual prejudice. However, in the timely yet confusing biopic from gorgeous director Lee Daniels, featuring a revealing performance from Andra Day, the authorities’ holiday harassment gets a wicked romantic twist in the form of a federal agent who is orders to spy on the star.
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Trevante Rhodes, proving to be a spellbinding presence in Barry Jenkins’ moonlight, is Jimmy Fletcher, the dashing undercover narco assigned to infiltrate the vacationing inner circle, gathering evidence of his drug use. However, even when Jimmy’s occupation is revealed, the singer and her entourage continue to tolerate his presence. In fact, Jimmy’s sympathetic attentions are clearly juxtaposed with vacationing’s abusive relationships with men: partners, husbands, and managers who often seem more like pimps. Fletcher may have been instructed by racist drug war boss Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) to take down Billie, but he finds himself sharing both her trust and his bed, even shooting heroin with her to prove his loyalty.
the speculative relationship at the heart of pulitzer prize-winning playwright/novelist suzan-lori parks’ screenplay appears to be rooted in a passing statement by johann hari (author of the film’s credited source book, chasing the scream) that “the man he set out to track down and trap billie holiday had apparently fallen in love with her.” certainly fletcher was on record feeling conflicted about his role in holiday’s legal tribulations, and she later wrote to him and he told her, “most federal agents are good people…maybe they would have been nicer to me if they had been nasty, then I wouldn’t have trusted them enough to believe what they told me.” this alleged romance seems strange when the verifiable details of vacation life are so compelling, particularly as the specter of a singer silenced for performing a song quietly incendiary tion clearly has drama to spare.
Much like Sidney J Furie’s lopsided 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, for which Diana Ross received a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination, Daniels’s troubled film, which moves madly between stage interviews , hallucinatory horrors and audacious musical pieces, rests squarely on the shoulders of a singer-turned-actor who brings a musical icon to cinematic life. day is truly a stunning screen presence, capturing her model’s poise and sheer power, whether she’s performing onstage with an orchid in her hair and bandages around bruised ribs, or slapping between numbers in a whirlwind world tour heady. Minimal as James Erskine’s recent documentary Billie demonstrated, Holiday transcended the trite label of “victim” and Day invested her performance with a vibrant force that cannot be stifled, even under the most dire of circumstances.
first-rate production design by daniel t dorrance (aided by a color monochrome editing device reminiscent of the night minsky’s was broken into), eye-catching costumes by paolo nieddu, and excellent photography by andrew dunn (whose credits include daniels’s precious and the butler) they put a brilliant shine on the often chaotic proceedings. but this is the show of the day at all times, and his performance remains the strong point of the film.
in the sky cinema