The best ad the ACLU has had in a long time, “American Violet” straightforwardly details a true-life story of a fight against institutional racial prejudice that took place in Texas not very long ago. Earnestly presented and well acted, particularly by newcomer Nicole Beharie in the central role, the film shares with many other such agenda-driven dramas a complete lack of narrative surprise, merely connecting the dots between important developments in the case. Pic’s inspiring elements lend it some commercial potential, especially with black audiences and school groups, given a distributor expert at getting the word out to the desired public.
The grievances at the heart of the case rightly inspire outrage, and it’s the spectacle of overzealous law enforcement, and the punishing effects it has on the innocent who get caught in the large net along with the guilty, that drives Bill Haney’s script.
A young, single mother of four living in a depressing small town, Dee Roberts (Beharie) is rounded up with some 30 others when cops raid her all-black housing project. At first suspecting she was nabbed due to her many outstanding parking tickets, Dee is held on drug charges, even though she claims she’s never touched the stuff.
Beginning in November 2000, during the protracted Bush-Gore election drama, the story spotlights the many ways in which the legal system was rigged against the accused: Dee is quickly offered a plea bargain and 10 years’ probation if she pleads guilty, which, when multiplied by countless other such cases, gives the district attorney strong tough-on-crime credentials.
Despite the advice of her jobless mother, Alma (Alfre Woodard), and the fact that the ornery father of her two youngest daughters, Darrell (Xzibit), is trying to take them back, Dee adamantly refuses to label herself permanently as a felon. She’s got plenty going against her in terms of people’s prejudices — she had her first child at 16, and the fathers of her two older kids are both in prison.
To the rescue comes David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson), a northern ACLU attorney. Arriving spouting statistics about America’s huge prison population and how 90% of convicts are in on plea bargains, Cohen is acutely aware of how a “Jewish Yankee” is perceived in these parts. To this end, he engages local attorney and former assistant D.A. Sam Conroy (Will Patton) to join him in fighting Dee’s case, which the ACLU has selected because of its overt racial elements and the D.A.’s use of questionable single informants.
Main obstacle is popular crime-busting D.A. Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe), who seems too all-powerful to beat. How it all comes down is inescapably interesting once you’re caught up in it, and the resolution is a genuine crowdpleaser. But Haney’s script feels like a story outline with dialogue attached, and Tim Disney’s direction is all broad strokes, with good guys and bad guys clearly identified and no time wasted on ambiguity or nuances.
That said, Dee is an engaging, admirable lead character, and the striking, petite Beharie, in only her second screen role, is a real winner, bringing energy and fortitude to a woman who easily could have joined the ranks of society’s victims and losers. Bright things lie ahead for this charismatic thesp.
O’Keefe makes for a formidable heavy, Nelson is right on the money as the self-aware interloper, Patton gives gentle shadings to a man whose intimate knowledge of Texas ways equips the prosecution with invaluable ammo, Woodard convincingly reps the older, pragmatic way of dealing with the Man, and Malcolm Barrett gets some late moments to shine as Cohen’s deputy on the case.
Production values are average, with too-bright lensing giving no drama to the visuals.