A powerful tale of institutional racism in Texas

Alfre Woodard and Nicole Beharie play mother and daughter.
Alfre Woodard and Nicole Beharie play mother and daughter.
Posted: May 01, 2009

A torn-from-the-headlines tale of institutional racism and injustice in the Lone Star State of not-so-long-ago, American Violet might not be subtle, but it's certainly powerful.

Based on the true story of a young African American who was arrested and charged with selling drugs - and who risked her job, family, and physical safety by defiantly maintaining her innocence - director Tim Disney's film will provoke gut-churning feelings of shock and disbelief. And that's the idea.

The magnetic Nicole Beharie stars as Dee Roberts, a 24-year-old single mother of four girls, living in public housing in the small Texas town of Melody. One day the police come to the diner where she works, handcuff her, and take her to jail. Dee thinks she's been nabbed for outstanding parking tickets - she owes thousands.

But by the time charges are read, it's clear that's not the issue: She has been named by a police informer for dealing drugs.

Encouraged by her public defender and her mother to take a plea bargain - even though she's not guilty - Dee stands firm, incurring the wrath of the district attorney (Michael O'Keefe). He has a history of ordering up raids of housing projects occupied almost entirely by blacks.

Enter David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson), an ACLU attorney, who recruits Sam Conroy (Will Patton), a local lawyer and former assistant D.A., to join him on the defense team. It's not just about Dee, it's about racial profiling and a legal system that, according to Cohen, resulted in a prison population where 90 percent of the inmates were there on plea bargains. The cases never went to trial.

Patton and Nelson - the hard-bitten Texan and the idealistic "Jewish Yankee" - make a good team, joined by Malcolm Barrett as a young (and black) ACLU litigator. O'Keefe is positively evil as the racist lawman, and Alfre Woodard shines as Dee's mother - a pragmatist, and pessimist, who can't believe her daughter is risking everything for the sake of a cause.

Set during the 2000 presidential election and its messy aftermath, American Violet frequently cuts to TV reports of the Bush-Gore legal battle - suggesting, perhaps, another case of rigged justice involving a Texan.

Whether or not that issue is relevant to the story at hand, American Violet makes its points with force and conviction.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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