The quietly impressive American Violet is another clear demonstration of the shifting demographics in Hollywood. It wasn’t that long ago when a superbly acted legal drama could command a sizable adult audience. But in 2009, in the wake of low-concept comedies and special-effects laden remakes, reboots, and other blockbusters built around familiar titles, it takes more than a strong cast of mostly character actors, a compelling story, and competent direction to get notice in Hollywood, which is why the independently released American Violet has to settle for slumming it at film festivals to get any notice at all. It’s had zero marketing; it doesn’t even have its own website, settling instead for Facebook and MySpace pages and positive word of mouth, which at least helped the movie rack up the third highest screen gross among the top 20 films over the weekend. It’s a shame it’s not getting any attention, too, because American Violet deserves to be seen, even if it’s only to demonstrate just how much racism still clings to the fabric of southern, small-town America.
American Violet is based on the events that took place in late 1999 in Tulia, Texas, when a small-town sheriff and his narcotics task-force conducted a drug-sting based on flimsy, uncorroborated evidence, and arrested 46 people, 39 of whom were African-American. That sheriff, using that small-town Texas justice, managed to convict a few of the defendants and sentence them to 20-90 years, and then use the threat of those convictions to manipulate the rest of the defendants into plea bargains, whether they were guilty or not.
Violet uses those same events and fictionalizes the town of Melody and its representative character, Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a hard-working single mother who waits tables to support her three children. As the movie opens, the local narcotics task force swoops in and arrests scores of African-Americans at a housing project in town, before tracking Dee down at the diner where she works and arresting her. Oblivious, she thinks she’s being arrested because of unpaid parking tickets, but soon realizes that she’s being indicted for dealing crack-cocaine near school property. Her entire arrest is based on the testimony of a mentally deranged felon (Anthony Mackie), who would say anything to avoid jail time. Dee, as a result, loses her job and her children are left under the care of her abusive ex-husband (Xzibit) and his child-molesting girlfriend. Dee is offered a deal, and her skeezy, peach-fuzzed public defender, who almost seems to be working for the other side, insists she take it, though admitting wrongdoing would also mean losing federal housing and food stamps.
Dee refuses to plea out, and after spending a month in jail, an ACLU lawyer, David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson), bails her out and makes her the named plaintiff in a case against the district attorney (William O’Keefe). Cohen hires a local attorney, Sam Conroy (Will Patton), who is reluctant to take the case because it would mean sacrificing his ties to a white-bully community, but does so because of an egregiously racist incident in his past. Much of the rest of the film is then spent in courthouses and in depositions, as Dee and her legal team fight against the atrociously corrupt and disgustingly arrogant racist Texas legal system, where lawmen drew federal funding to their localities and increased their political clout by targeting poor African-Americans eager to assist them in increasing their conviction rates if it meant spending less time in prison.
American Violet is not without its faults. Scriptwriter and producer, Bill Haney, obviously has an agenda here, and in railing against “Texas justice,” he too often presents Dee as too good to be true: A hard working, smart, courageous angel of a woman who just happens to live in public housing and have children with three men, two of whom are in prison, the other an abusive asshole. Moreover, for the sake of dramatic storytelling, Haney teases out this fictional story from the events of Tulia when he probably could’ve found an individual case just as insidious and ugly from among the Tulia plaintiffs (although, to be fair, that’d already been done in the documentary, Tulia, Texas). Furthermore, director Tim Disney too often gives in to over-earnestness and heavy-handedness, oversimplifying the events to fit them, too easily, into Hollywood legal drama formulas. American Violet, too, is unnecessarily played against the backdrop of the 2000 election, as it attempts — perhaps unfairly — to equate the Texan racism with the rise of George W. Bush, though these narcotics task forces were created in 1982.
Still, the amazing cast — highlighted by the always dependable Will Patton, as well as Tim Blake Nelson and the unbelievably phenomenal newcomer, Nicole Beharie — rises way above the often pat material, delivering electrifying, pull-you-out-of-your-seat performances (Beharie, seriously, will blow the elastic out of your socks). But American Violet, above all, knows how to push our buttons, extracting moral indignation out of its liberal audience and then giving us exactly what we want: One heroic, ever-loving bitch-slap to the face of the systemic racism that pervaded (pervades?) the Texas legal system. The ending is never in doubt (particularly if you know the story of Tulia, Texas), but it manages nevertheless to throw down some feel good, not necessarily because the good guys win, but because the nasty fuckers finally get their goddamn comeuppance.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.