It's been a while since we've had a truly rousing, inspirational film about rectifying social injustices, à la Norma Rae or Philadelphia. American Violet, opening this Friday, is such a movie. Based on shockingly true events in rural Texas in 2000, it recounts the arrest of Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie, giving a breakthrough, award-worthy performance) and 29 other Black residents of a low-income housing project during a police raid. No one is more shocked than Dee when she learns that she has been arrested not for unpaid parking tickets as she thought, but for allegedly selling drugs at an elementary school.
Dee, a single mother of four children barely making ends meet between her waitress job and government subsidies, is pressured by her court-appointed lawyer to accept a plea bargain. However, since the plea bargain requires Dee to admit to a crime she didn't commit, she refuses. Her case draws the attention of the ACLU, which assigns attorneys David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) and Byron Hill (Malcolm Barrett) to investigate.
Cohen and Hill enlist local lawyer Sam Conroy (Will Patton). Together, they encourage Dee to sue district attorney Calvin Beckett (an excellent Michael O'Keefe, who's come a long way since Caddyshack). The four set out to bring Beckett down by proving he has targeted blacks, Latinos and other minorities and prosecuted them unfairly.
The performances in American Violet are uniformly superb. In addition to the previously mentioned cast members, Alfre Woodard, Xzibit, Charles S. Dutton and Pamala Tyson all stand out. Bill Haney's screenplay is a bit over-earnest at times, but on the whole, it provides a riveting account. Also, the narrative jumps around quite a bit in terms of dates and time due either to the script or the film's editing, and some photographic shots seem too bright and over-lit.
Well-directed by Tim Disney (an up and comer who last made the acclaimed documentary The Price of Sugar), Dee Roberts' saga is a harsh but ultimately crowd-pleasing reminder that while racial and other injustices still occur in the US, the commitment to overcoming them is stronger than ever.
UPDATE: American Violet is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.