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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.