There’s more than a whiff of the message telefilm about “American Violet,” but if one is willing to accept the conventions that go along with that description, it’s a better-than-average example—which perhaps explains why it’s being released to theatres rather than simply shown on the tube. Based, inevitably, on a true story, it’s the tale of an African-American woman in a small Texas town who’s wrongly rounded up in a drug raid that’s one of a series orchestrated by the publicity-seeking D.A. With the help of the ACLU and a principled local lawyer, she battles the charge and, in the process, not only reveals the shaky legal grounding of the raids but unmasks the D.A. as a racist.
This is a story of injustice that can’t help but generate anger over a system in which bigotry continues to prevail and the process is manipulated to force plea bargains from the innocent as well as the guilty. And it inevitably urges viewers to admit how false it is to believe that the social problems confronted by the civil rights movement are things of the past.
Of course, it’s also a story that seems very familiar, the sort of narrative that one’s seen on screen in films like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Mississippi Burning” and in numerous television docudramas.
But it’s worth telling again, and this version of it by writer Bill Haney and director Tim Disney (yes, of that family), while hitting all the expected notes, does so effectively. That’s largely the result of the work of a strong cast. Newcomer Nicole Beharie does an excellent job as Dee Roberts, the targeted single mother; she interacts nicely with the four children who play her daughters, and also with veteran Alfre Woodard, who shows real toughness as her mother, who’s not at all certain that her daughter is doing the smart thing by fighting City Hall. Xzibit is also quite convincing as the estranged father of two of the children, a troubled man who’s taken up with a dangerous woman but allows himself to be used by the authorities against Dee.
On the legal side, Tim Blake Nelson plays well against type as the dedicated ACLU lawyer, and Will Patton uses his hesitant manner very well as the honorable but somewhat conflicted attorney added to the team to provide insight into local conditions. On the other hand, Michael O’Keefe comes across too much like a standard-issue villain as D.A. Beckett, and Charles Dutton, as formidable as he is physically, adds nothing special to the figure of the minister who stands by Dee in her travails.
“American Violet” is hardly a lavish picture, and though it’s shot in widescreen by Steve Yedlin, visually it might actually look better on the small screen. But it’s arguable that the physical modesty of the production fits a narrative that raises large issues in a small-town context. This is a film that offers a message we’ve heard before, but it’s one that bears repeating, and it’s reasonably well delivered here.