The Reel Review
Andra Day stars in this drama on Hulu about the lengths that the U.S. government went to silence Jazz legend Billie Holiday from singing her controversial song, “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of black men in the South in early 20th century America. Set mostly in the 1940s, it details her heroin addiction and a romantic relationship with undercover federal agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevonte Rhodes).
In her acting debut, Day is impressive, perfectly channeling Holiday’s voice and singing style. Unfortunately her performance is squandered on a film that is one hot burning mess – a muddled, tediously long, two hours of misery porn graphically showing us over and over that drugs are bad and that the Feds chasing after Holiday were bad, without revealing anything of substance about Holiday or her life.
The screenplay from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks is a CliffsNotes version of Holiday’s life, failing to even get right some basic details about the Jazz icon. And as its director, Lee Daniels (Precious) doesn’t do much better, wallowing in grotesque sensationalism. It’s a shame – both Holiday and Day deserve better.
• Billie Holiday died July 17, 1959 of cirrhosis at the age of 44, later winning four posthumous Grammy awards and in 2017, inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. Above is Holiday performing “Strange Fruit.”
• In actuality, federal agent Jimmy Fletcher only had a brief sexual fling with Holiday, not the long-running affair that is depicted in the film.
• Evan Ross (The Hunger Games) appears in the film as an FBI agent. His mother, Diana Ross, received an Oscar nomination for her portrait of Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues.