American Violet opens in the kitchen of a Texas housing project, as a mother makes breakfast for her children. She pours water into a tea kettle; serves eggs; hurries the kids along – a lovely, peaceful scene. Then the film cuts abruptly to police preparing for a raid: they load their weapons (I believe the first shot is of a gun), put on armor, and pile en masse into trucks. The moment we move from the kitchen table to the police staging area, the soundtrack changes too, from a languid, piano-tinged theme to a percussive arrangement that screams evil.
This approach is representative of much of the movie, which is a strident, aggressive polemic against racism in the justice system, as well as the story of a courageous woman who risked much to sue an all-powerful District Attorney. It is straightforward, unambiguous, and often frankly partisan, hitting its talking points hard without ever really peering under the surface. The tale it tells is reasonably compelling, and as a legal thriller the film more or less works. But much of it is obvious and ham-fisted – the sort of Serious Drama you might expect to see on basic cable. Adventurous moviegoers won't find much of interest here.
American Violet does offer a discovery in the form of a young actress named Nicole Behaire, who portrays the scrappy, unyielding protagonist with tremendous sympathy and poise. Her Dee Roberts, a single mother of four, gets swept up in one of District Attorney Calvin Beckett's (Michael O'Keefe) drug raids – dragnets through the all-black projects, undertaken on the say-so of a single, most likely bullied informant. She's given three options: plead guilty and become a convicted felon (and get booted from public housing in the process), put up $70,000 in bail, or rot in prison awaiting trial while her kids remain caught in a tug-of-war between their grandmother (Alfre Woodard) and their drunk, abusive father (Xzibit). At the urging of a well-meaning ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson), who enlists the help of a local drug-cop-turned-attorney (an almost comically tentative Will Patton), Dee decides to sue Beckett, hoping to change the system that landed her in jail.
The movie is right, of course: the "justice" system that incarcerates blacks at a rate approaching 10%, mostly for drug crimes, is a travesty and a mockery. As American Violet points out, a lot of this happens because "the DA decides what he wants, the cops go get it for him, and the judges bless what they have done." But the movie is largely disinterested in asking the systemic questions about this complicated problem. It provides almost no context about the "drug war" behind Dee Roberts's strife. It feints toward addressing issues like plea bargaining and laws that make drug indictments inordinately easy to obtain, but ultimately settles for this explanation: some powerful people are racist. That's true, but it's not terribly insightful.
The events of the film take place in 2000, and director Tim Disney (yes, there's a relation) occasionally cuts to news footage of that year's infamous presidential election and its aftermath. This is one of American Violet's more interesting moves, since it can be read as making the subtler point that African-Americans have been, among other things, disenfranchised. On the other hand, it can also be read as so much partisan sniping. Disney sure does resort to it often.
As a legal procedural, the film can actually be rather potent. Disney and screenwriter Bill Haney have a nice sense of the way depositions and court hearings go, perhaps from reading the transcripts of the real events depicted. The deposition questions and strategy sessions ring true, though there is one suspicious scene where the villain somehow winds up presiding over a child custody hearing. But even here, Disney can't resist absurd overemphasis: at one point, for example, a witness is asked to identify the races of a bunch of recent arrestees, and as he is reciting "black, black, black..." the film flashes to the faces of a bunch of random (black) arrestees. It may seem hard to believe, but the moment would have been more powerful had Disney left it alone.
The movie is always able to fall back on Dee Roberts' remarkable story. But in the end, this is a very ordinary film about an extraordinary woman. American Violet is entertaining enough, but unlike its subject, it takes the easy way out. The issues it tackles deserve a treatment less maudlin and simplistic. I recommend The Wire as a good place to start.