Movie Review: American Violet
By Betsy Sharkey, Special to the Chicago Tribune
We tend to think of the U.S. justice system as the best in the world. Then along comes a film like "American Violet," a disquieting drama based on the true story of a young single mother victimized by what turned out to be a tainted, race-based drug arrest and the crusade of a conviction-hungry district attorney in a small Texas town.
The story begins in 2000, just as George W. Bush's presidential fate was being decided by a Florida recount; news footage from that time is used throughout the film like ironic background music. Dee Roberts, played by promising newcomer Nicole Beharie, was 24, living in a housing project with her four young children and getting by on what she made as a waitress and government assistance, when a drug sweep landed her in jail with a felony charge and the possibility of 10 years behind bars. With no record of drug arrests and no drugs found near her, Roberts refuses to take a plea bargain for a crime she is adamant she did not commit.
Most of the cards are stacked against Roberts. A mother by age 13, she has been working hard to keep her kids fed, clothed and loved. She gets a hand with the kids from her mother (Alfre Woodard), help with her soul from her church pastor (Charles S. Dutton), and a life-changing assist in her fight from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In the hands of director Tim Disney and screenwriter Bill Haney, it's a classic David vs. Goliath story, but that biblical happy ending is far from a given. Early in the film, Roberts' glib court-appointed attorney and one of the assistant district attorneys discuss her fate with her as if a felony plea bargain and 10 years' probation is a gift, and it's clear that for this woman, in this moment, guilt or innocence is beside the point.
Beharie has the long, lean look of a dancer - the back impossibly straight, the muscles finely wrought - that works well in conveying her character's steely resolve. And Michael O'Keefe gives the vengeful district attorney a seething, imperious anger.
There are many big themes running through this small movie - racial profiling, handy legal loopholes that protect bad guys masquerading as good, fear-based plea bargains and the stranglehold a powerful politician can have over a town. The filmmakers try to distill all this through Roberts' singular experience, which sometimes makes for a push-pull affair between the drama and the details.
Disney and Haney's years in the documentary trenches prove to be both a blessing and a curse. The narrative is infused with chilling facts, and the filmmakers know how to build their case, but a drama demands more. We should have been immersed in Roberts' wrenching journey, not just sitting it out on the sidelines.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, violence, drug references and language).
Running time: 1:42.
Starring: Nicole Beharie (Dee); Alfre Woodard (Alma); Charles S. Dutton (Rev. Sanders); Tim Blake Nelson (David Cohen); Will Patton (Sam).
Directed by Tim Disney; written by Bill Haney; produced by Haney. A Samuel Goldwyn release.