'American Violet': A Drug War's Collateral Damage
The true-life tale of a young woman who confronts a racist district attorney, American Violet is an earnest and finally inspirational depiction of how bad things used to be in the South.
Except that "used to be" turns out not to be so long ago: The movie opens in November 2000.
A small-town Texas waitress, Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie) lives in an all-black housing project. A never-married mother of four young daughters, Dee may not qualify as a model citizen. But she's so distant from the crack subculture that she doesn't understand what's happening when she's busted during a drug raid. She thinks she's wanted for unpaid parking tickets.
Charged with dealing, Dee is offered a 10-year suspended sentence if she pleads guilty, versus a possible 25-year jail term if she loses in court.
Naturally, she wants to get out of jail and return to her children. Dee's mother, Alma Roberts (Alfre Woodard), can take care of them, but Dee worries that the two younger girls will be claimed by their untrustworthy father (rapper Xzibit).
Alma presses Dee to plead guilty, but the younger woman can't bring herself to confess to something she didn't do. Luckily for her, reinforcements arrive: At a community meeting, the Rev. Sanders (Charles S. Dutton) introduces two lawyers from the ACLU, David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) and Byron Hill (Malcolm Barrett).
Dee is the ideal client for an ACLU test case. In addition to being innocent, she has the determination to withstand insults and threats. Ultimately, she even shows a flair for legal strategy.
Since he's a "Jewish Yankee," Cohen hires a local attorney, conflicted ex-cop Sam Conroy (Will Patton), to lead Dee's case. It turns out, though, that the African-American Hill is the team's biggest threat to the genteel facade of local D.A. Calvin Beckett (Michael O'Keefe).
Directed competently by Tim Disney (Walt's great-nephew), American Violet provides no real jolts, either narratively or psychologically. But the performances are persuasive and nuanced, illustrating the many ways people accept injustice â€” and, occasionally, compensate for past acceptances.
Playing the central character, and the one who instinctively rejects compromise, Beharie carries the story. In only her second movie, she proves she can play the resolute underdog as well as any box-office champ.
Primarily a civics lesson, the movie is full of information on such topics as the size of the U.S. prison population, the extent of plea bargains rather than trials, the federal quotas that encourage indiscriminate local drug busts and the long-term effects of copping a plea rather than battling trumped-up charges.
News reports of the Bush-Gore re-count struggle punctuate the story, both setting the period and reminding viewers that the 2008 election had a rather different outcome. Yet the news that's most pertinent to the movie's message is the recent coverage of drug-cartel feuds in Mexico. While American Violet 's target is racism, its view of the U.S. "war on drugs" is especially timely.