Movie Review: ‘American Violet' — In Search of Justice in Small-Town Texas

Nicole Beharie plays Dee Roberts, who is set up by a crooked district attorney. Beharie adroitly displays strong emotions in the film ranging from vulnerability to steely resolve.
Nicole Beharie plays Dee Roberts, who is set up by a crooked district attorney. Beharie adroitly displays strong emotions in the film ranging from vulnerability to steely resolve. (By Scott Saltzman -- Samuel Goldwyn Films)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

How would you feel if you were falsely accused of distributing narcotics in a school zone? Especially if you were the doting mother of four cute kids who had never racked up anything more serious than a single, youthful shoplifting charge and a few hundred dollars' worth of parking tickets?

You'd feel outraged. Violated.

That's how you'll feel watching "American Violet," a harrowing drama about a real case in Texas that inspired an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the racist, small-town district attorney (played by Michael O'Keefe). A man who, up until just a few years ago, routinely brought such charges against the blacks in his community, based on the then-permissible practice of taking testimony from a single -- and often highly unreliable -- witness.

In the year 2000, it seems like an open-and-shut case.

On the one side, you've got the clean-living single mom and hard-working waitress Dee Roberts, played by the wondrous Nicole Beharie, whose every emotion -- vulnerability, horror, steely resolve and ferocious maternal protection -- 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 Beckett runs the town, called Melody instead of the actual Hearn, Tex., like his own private fiefdom. Thanks to his law-and-order record, he is popular with the white side of town and feared by everyone else.

The two ACLU lawyers who take up Dee's suit are outsiders in the tight-knit community. One is a fast-talking Jew from the urban Northeast (Tim Blake Nelson); his backup, a black lawyer (Malcolm Barrett). That leaves Dee's legal team with the task of recruiting a local good ol' boy to be the face of the case. And all they can come up with is Sam Conroy (Will Patton), a man whose fundamental decency is at war with his well-founded fear of being ruined by the all-powerful Beckett.

Fortunately, Sam's got a skeleton in his closet. A failure to have once done the right thing, back when he was a young man, still gnaws at him. Dee's case is an opportunity to redeem himself.

There's a lot to like about the story, but Sam's guilty past feels like a narrative contrivance. Sure, the lawyer living down a long-buried disgrace is a familiar device in courtroom dramas. Here it feels heavy-handed, as if the filmmakers (director Tim Disney and writer Bill Haney) don't trust the true story's inherent power.

When Dee is arrested, the jail she's locked up in is almost 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) while Dee is preoccupied with the case. Add to that the filmmaker's too frequent use of background television news clips depicting the disputed 2000 presidential election, and you've got a confrontation between good and evil -- and a connection between Texas and George W. Bush -- that is starker than it needs to be.

Nobody needs to be force-fed here. How much will you want to see Dee win? So much, you can taste it.

What does it taste like? Mostly, thanks to excellent, nuanced performances by Beharie, Woodard, Nelson and Patton, like justice.

American Violet (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for obscenity, scenes of violence and intimidation and drug references.

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