The United States vs. Billie Holiday ★★★

I actually thought this was quite strong. Andra Day is alive and alert in every moment as Billie Holiday, and I don’t get what people mean when they say she’s not acting out the songs. To me that’s exactly what she is doing, if we mean inhabiting them, thinking about the meaning of what she's singing and what Billie would think about it: empathizing. She even makes "Strange Fruit" new. The drug/dream sequence is astonishing, shocking. Conservative critic Armond White, who hated the picture, likens Daniels to Ken Russell (to Daniels’ disadvantage), which I thought was actually very astute. (White actually makes quite a lot of acute points generally; you just have to wade through a lot of BS to get to them.) I’d agree with the critique it's exploitative and sensationalistic, not to say quite sexually explicit. (I'm not puritanical about things like that.) I also agree that it'd be nice to focus on Holiday's towering musical genius instead of her icon-of-female-victimhood status. She belongs in the very top echelon of the two or three most innovative singers in American history. You wouldn’t get the idea from this film, for example, that Billie Holiday sang with Count Basie's Barons of Rhythm, perhaps the greatest jazz bands of all time (Lester "Prez" Young on tenor sax, Philly Jo Jones on drums, Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green on guitarist). There's a surprising lot of music in here, though, especially since White says Daniels isn't even especially a jazz fan. There’s a campy quality to the film; it's as if on one level Daniels coached the actors to play it like they're in Drunk History. Politically it's very true and strong: the criminalization of Black drug users by Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics was a disaster: in a decent society, drug addiction would be treated as a medical and not a criminal problem. Also, the war on drugs was and is irretrievably white supremacist and Anslinger was a wicked, virulent racist who was indeed motivated by his hatred of "Strange Fruit" and Black people.