The United States vs. Billie Holiday winds up being all over the place trying to capture every narrative thread.
On paper that plot description may seem straight forward, but that’s because it is a massively streamlined version of what the movie is. Amidst the controversy involving “Strange Fruit” and the law is a subplot involving young FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who goes from busting Billie Holiday to becoming her lover. But he’s not the only romantic interest established, as the feature also chronicles her time with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), and her series of abusive relationships with men like James Monroe (Erik LaRay Harvey), John Levy (Tone Bell), and Louis McKay (Rob Morgan). And there’s a randomly included framing device involving a radio interview with Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan). And there’s also full performances of songs included so that the audience gets a true sense of Holiday’s talent, and even a hallucinatory journey that takes us back to her childhood. All of this unfolds with arbitrary jumps through time to moments in Holiday’s life that the film thinks are significant. It’s all over the place.