How would you feel if you were falsely accused of distributing narcotics in a school zone? Especially if you were the doting mother of three cute kids who had never racked up anything more serious than parking tickets?
I know how I'd feel. I'd feel outraged. Violated.
I know that, because that's how I felt watching "American Violet," a harrowing drama about a real-life case in Texas that inspired an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the racist district attorney (here played by Michael O'Keefe).
It seems like an open-and-shut case.
On the one side, you've got the clean-living single mom and hardworking waitress Dee Roberts, played by the wondrous Nicole Beharie, whose every emotion plays across her face like light on water. On the other side is O'Keefe's Calvin Beckett, whose hateful, impassive face looks like a lump of cold, unbaked dough with two empty holes punched in it for eyes.
But it's more complicated than that.
The two ACLU attorneys who take up Dee's suit are outsiders in the tight-knit community. So Dee's legal team recruits local good ol' boy Sam Conroy (Will Patton) to be the face of the case.
What sticks in my craw -- just a bit -- is the way the film doesn't fully trust the true story's inherent power.
When Dee is arrested, the jail is like something out of "Midnight Express." And her ex (rapper-actor Xzibit) is a nasty piece of work. He keeps kidnapping their daughter from Dee's mother (a rocklike Alfre Woodard) despite the fact that he doesn't have custody. Add to that the filmmaker's frequent use of background television new clips depicting the 2000 presidential election, and you have a confrontation between Good and Evil that is starker than it need be.
I know how much I want to see Dee win. So much so I can taste it. You will, too.
What does it taste like? There's a slight aftertaste of force-feeding, to be sure. But mostly, thanks to excellent, nuanced performances by Beharie, Woodard, Nelson and Patton, it tastes like justice.
-- Michael O'Sullivan (April 17, 2009)
Contains obscenity, scenes of violence and intimidation and drug references.