There are those who have an unwavering faith in the honesty and fairness of the American justice system, and there are those who are cynical and suspicious of the motives and actions of those in law enforcement. "American Violet" — a film based on a true story of a corrupt, racist district attorney gone rogue — can be considered another sharpened crayon in the cynics' coloring box.
The mere idea of a district attorney falsely arresting and rounding up minorities on completely fabricated drug charges and then coercing them to admit guilt and take plea bargains, might seem completely unrealistic to some. Those people have likely never lived in Texas or the South. This "unique" culture of Texas and the South is reinforced throughout the film. Characters wearily remark about the oppressive Texan norms and the insurmountable task of opposing them. Things are just the way they are. Blacks do drugs and commit crimes, while police officers, especially white police officers, are honest working people protecting civil society from ruffians. The black community begrudgingly accepts its role in this twisted soap opera until the clouds break and a light shines, revealing a Yankee named David Cohen from the ACLU, who arrives to right all that is wrong in Texas.
The film begins with what appears to be a normal day for the Roberts family. Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a single mother of four and a waitress, is at work and Grandma Alma (Alfre Woodard) is babysitting her four grandchildren. When one of her granddaughters asks to go visit a family friend, Alma gives her consent but asks her to carry a dish with her. Within seconds of the girl stepping out of her grandmother's apartment, the young girl finds herself smack dab in the middle of a drug raid, complete with a helicopter and SWAT trucks. Law enforcement round up all the people on the DA's list, leaving the children and the neighborhood startled and terrified. Even more terrifying, which the young girl and her grandmother are completely unaware of, is that Dee's name is on that list.
Since Dee is at work, she gets apprehended in front of her boss and taken away in handcuffs. No Miranda rights are read and no explanation is given as to why she's being arrested. Dee is locked up and thrown in a cell for 21 days, refusing to accept a plea bargain to get her out earlier. When her mother finally manages to post bail, Dee comes out determined to prove her innocence and Cohen and White meet her in her struggle, taking them all on a whirlwind journey through Texas law and justice.
When Cohen arrives in Melody, Texas with Byron White (Malcolm Barrett), a black attorney also from the ACLU, they head straight to a church in town that has been plagued by repeated drug raids on their community. Listening to the woes of the townspeople, the two men decide to sue the all-mighty district attorney, Calvin Beckett (Michael O'Keefe), suing him and local law enforcement for racial discrimination. They manage to convince local lawyer Sam Conroy (Will Patton) to join their cause. And whose case do they choose as the catalyst for this suit? Dee Roberts'.
When it comes to race/legal dramas, the acting is what carries the film. And in this case, the cast is superb. Nicole Beharie as the heroine, Dee, is strong, determined and sharp throughout. She plays Dee with an inner strength, but also lets us see her break down at times, giving the audiences glimpses of her self doubt. Alfre Woodard as Dee's mother is nurturing and cautious, and Alfre manages to insert a sense of cynicism in Grandma Alma's otherwise warm character. The legal dream team are played excellently, with Malcolm Barrett's Byron character stealing the show in a deposition scene toward the end of the film.
But while the actors do their job masterfully in the film, the plot wears thin in some spots. For example, the director, Tim Disney, attempts to tie the whole nefarious scenario to the Bush administration, showing footage of Bush/Gore on the 2000 campaign trail, but the link is never firmly established coherently, making the whole thing a distraction. Is the director implying that Bush was responsible for this corrupt behavior in Texas, or that this corrupt Texan behavior was headed straight to the White House? Another distraction is the babydaddy drama with Dee and her third babydaddy Darrell Hughes, as played by Xzibit. It plays no role in driving the main plot of the film, only reiterating the broken ghetto politics of babymamas and babydaddies that has been depicted in so many films before it.
The film touches repeatedly on the "good ol' boy" nature of Texas, dancing around the issue of racism and Jim Crowism, but never really tackles the issue head on. (Save for the aforementioned scene between Byron White and Calvin Beckett). This is perhaps purposely done by the director. In one scene, Dee and her lawyers meet with her corrupt court-appointed lawyer in a diner. The lighting in this scene is dark, making the background obscure. But if you pay attention and raise the brightness in this scene, you'll notice smack dab in the background, a good ol' confederate flag.
In a way, this scene sums up that something that's missing from the film. There's a giant elephant in the room and no one bothers to talk about it. It just lurks, hiding in the shadows.
FINAL VERDICT: The story will suck you in and you'll be rooting for the good guys and scowling at the bad guys. But while the film seems to have the right ingredients — great cast, compelling story, lessons about society — it ultimately leaves you feeling like you just ate a frozen TV dinner. Full, but not quite satisfied.
( American Violet hits DVD on Oct. 13th. If you would like to have your DVD movie reviewed by Bark + Bite e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org )