Director Lee Daniels (“The Butler” 2013) brings to the screen a brutal, painful two hours and 10 minutes of the life of the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday, in his film “United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

Following close behind the recent “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” George. C. Wolfe’s screen version of August Wilson’s play, rips back the curtain on the ugly past of many of the music world’s great black performers.

Holiday’s life, from birth to death, was never fully revealed to her millions of fans.

It was a life torturously lived and difficult to watch, even as it is so well illuminated by the glorious performance by Grammy and Golden Globe Best Actress nominee Andra Day.

What’s remarkable in this biopic is that Day has never acted in a major motion picture; it’s clear to all that the future is her friend.

As Holliday, Day clearly shows that she has the required mojo juice for the job. From the opening shots, she owns the screen and delivers a sharp, edgy and frightening performance.

Billie emerges on screen as a scented gardenia, like the one she always wore in her hair, only to be crushed under the polished shoes of every man in her life, and tossed, without benediction, into the dumpster.

The first of her abusers is the man who raped her at age 10, followed by her pimp husband, Jimmy Monroe, (Erik LaRay Harvey), then betrayed by her agent Joe Glaser (Dusan Dukic), who turned her in to the Feds, and even by bandleaders like the great Benny Goodman and his musicians, who stayed in all white hotels, while Billie had to sleep in the alley on the tour bus.

Only one man, her friend, saxophonist Lester Young (Tyler James Williams) tried to save her, while others supplied her with marijuana and heroin, and brought her out plates of food to the tour bus, while they lived the high life.

Without a shrug, those around her, who should have known better, were kept fed and well dressed, playing jazz for white audiences, who paid top dollar only to hear her.

Daniels and writer Susan-Lori Parks make it clear that Billlie’s handlers hated her for that, but she was the living coin that put bread on their tables and death juice in their arms.

One man stands out, the suave, handsome and duplicitous Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes — “Moonlight”) who sneaks into her orbit as a fan who carries a Federal Narcotics badge under his cashmere jacket.

He will, of course, like all the others, betray her, but before he does, a tortured love floats in. In all the darkness surrounding her, she is for him, moonlight, and he is, for her, water.

The uneven screenplay by Parks is based on Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” and features her famous anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol.

A note: As well conceived as Daniels’ film is, to get a stronger, more authentic look at the great singer, try James Erskine’s 2019 documentary “Billie,” featuring the real Billie Holiday, on Prime Video.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” streams now on Hulu.

J.P. Devine of Waterville is a former stage and screen actor.


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