FILM REVIEW: American Violet

Since Obama’s election, the term “post-civil rights” has been tossed around our country as a way to describe a new generation’s approach to race. The idea that U.S. citizens have all summarily moved on from racism is jolly and keen, but utterly untrue. Directed by Tim Disney, American Violet seeks to pinpoint a broken justice system, portions of which are steeped in racism and bias.

Based on her true story, Dee Roberts (sparkling newcomer Nicole Beharie) is a young black Texan mother, arrested in 2000 during a militaristic police-raid on the Arlington Springs housing projects. Dumped into the ugly judicial system, Dee must face trumped up drug charges, and then choose between a plea bargain or awaiting trial in jail. If convicted as a felon, Dee and her children would be evicted from the housing projects, and her food-stamps revoked.

Enter white ACLU lawyer David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) who has identified a gross infraction of civil rights, and urges Dee to sue the seemingly untouchable District Attorney (Michael O’Keefe). What ensues is a multi-layered war, as Dee struggles to protect and care for her four daughters while standing up to a rank legal system.

Various supporting characters paint a deeper portrait of life in Melody, Texas. Dee’s mother (Alfre Woodard) and a white Texan attorney (Will Patton) have featured subplots as aging adults who have been forced to silently adapt their entire lives to racism. The father of Dee’s children (Xzibit) is a tangible threat throughout the film.

American Violet has no need for flashy camera tricks or effects, as Director Tim Disney trains the camera on his bold characters and we watch them clash. Occasionally featured is footage from the 2000 Bush/Gore election, another tale of a complex and sometimes sweepingly unfair legal system. Since the story is set prior to 9/11 and the Iraq war, the media bonanza is focused on deciphering our justice system and the idea of Who Watches the Watchers?

For anyone who watched Mississippi Burning or In The Heat of the Night in high school, you’ll be transported back to a duel lesson on southern politics and the American justice system. Characters in American Violet seem trapped by a system that is supposed to protect them. Instead, it seeks them out with search-and-destroy precision.

But keep your eye on Nicole Beharie as Dee Roberts, and you’ll learn all about the plight of so many of your fellow Americans. At her core, Roberts wants to protect her children while cultivating her own dreams of prosperity. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy in America as it sounds.

Paul Seiz

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