Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Nicole Beharie looks after her house plants in American Violet.
American Violet
Starring Nicole Beharie and Alfre Woodard. Directed by Tim Disney. Written by Bill Haney. Rated PG-13.
Dee Criminal-ized

An indie film about racial injustice in Texas pushes all the same Hollywood buttons.


American Violet is the sort of movie that Hollywood used to love making. Itís a story of racially tinged injustice that lends itself to the sight of heroic, downtrodden African-Americans and their enlightened white friends crusading against the prejudices of a bunch of rednecks who look like they just crawled up from the swamp. What could be more inspiring, especially for audiences looking to congratulate themselves on being on the right side of history? These days, however, the only time civil rights struggles seem to come up in movies is in the context of a sports film (The Express, Glory Road). Hollywood prefers to leave that stuff in the past. Maybe thatís why the major studios didnít make American Violet, leaving it to independent filmmakers to tackle this true story. Sometimes thatís a good thing, because indies are free to give the story less polish and more subtlety than a Hollywood treatment would accomplish. This isnít one of those times.
The plot is based on the story of Regina Kelly, an African-American waitress who in November 2000 was scooped up in a military-style drug raid on her housing project in the town of Hearne, near College Station. This much of what the movie tells us is true: She was a mother to four young girls. She was wholly innocent of the crime she was accused of (dealing drugs in a school zone). Her accuser was a single and extremely unreliable confidential informant. She spent three weeks in jail. The charges against her and everyone else arrested in the raid were dropped due to lack of evidence. She sued the district attorney with the help of the ACLU and forced police to alter their drug-enforcement practices.
The fact that everybodyís names have been changed should tip you off that the rest of the movieís history is seriously compromised. (Meanwhile, the fact that this movie, set in Texas, was actually shot in Louisiana should tip you off as to why Gov. Rick Perry is trying to revive our stateís film industry.) Here the heroine based on Kelly is named Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), and she lives in the fictitious town of Melody. After landing in jail, sheís saddled with an idiotic public defender (Paul David Story), who joins her mother (Alfre Woodard) in begging her to take a plea bargain. Thatís before her minister (Charles S. Dutton) sends her three lawyers: a nerdy Jewish ACLU guy (Tim Blake Nelson), a drawling Melody attorney recruited to relate to potential jurors (Will Patton), and an African-American (Malcolm Barrett) who at first seems to be there for window-dressing but later plays a key role in the legal proceedings. The movieís title refers to Deeís habit of keeping violets in her apartment.
In the tradition of bad drama everywhere, Dee and especially her legal team emerge as spotless heroes while the villains are as bad as bad can be. These include her sketchy baby daddy (rap star Xzibit) and his sex-offender girlfriend (Karimah Westbrook) who are trying to take Deeís kids away. Bad as they are, they look like pillars of virtue next to the D.A. (Michael OíKeefe), whoís so loathsome and racist that his own family hates him. Writer Bill Haney and director Tim Disney ó yes, heís descended from the famous Disney family ó pile on the signifiers by showing news footage of George W. Bush stealing the 2000 election as a way of telling us that the system is rigged. At its worst, this movieís lack of subtlety approaches Tyler Perry levels.
Newcomer Beharie (whose film career prior to this consisted of one small role in The Express last year) looks a bit too put-together for a single mom in the projects, though in light of the character being a hairdresserís daughter, maybe it makes sense that the character pays more attention to her appearance than most. She fails to give this role any human dimensions, which probably isnít her fault given the bland way Dee is written. The supporting players give rote performances except for ó no surprise ó Woodard, who has a history of punching up bad movies with lively and insightful performances. (Interestingly, she does much better picking out good TV shows to appear on than she does with movies.) Commonsensical and snappy in this role, Woodard injects some much-needed comic relief.
The film does move along reasonably well, which only makes you think that Disney and Haney could have made this into something worthy if they hadnít stretched the truth. The ability of prosecutors to abuse their power is too rarely discussed in the movies or in real life, and a straight-up telling of Regina Kellyís story would have pressed home that point far more effectively than this movie does. American Violetís biggest and most dubious achievement is proving that indie movies can be as fast and loose with history as Hollywood.

Email this Article...

Back to Top

Copyright 2002 to 2022 FW Weekly.
3311 Hamilton Ave. Fort Worth, TX 76107
Phone: (817) 321-9700 - Fax: (817) 335-9575 - Email Contact
Archive System by PrimeSite Web Solutions