American Violet

A movie unveils the shocking truth: Racism happens.

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 28, 2009

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Directed by Tim Disney
C+

Even today, in certain parts of the country, institutional racism thrives; local police and justice departments, in an effort to nab government awards dollars, have been known to target low-income black communities so as to juke up stats.

There. Now you don’t need to see American Violet.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t—there are reasons you should; keep reading—but it does mean that it’s a no-holds-barred, straight-up, old-school, Stanley Kramer-type melodrama that, if it weren’t in ‘Scope, would have been obviously misdrected from its natural home in the TV movie-verse.

Nicole Beharie plays a well-meaning single mom in a small Texas town who’s inexplicably arrested during a sweep of her black housing community then prosecuted on trumped-up charges. Given the choice of a railroading plea bargain or fight against impossible odds, she sticks to her guns and is rewarded with a kindly ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) who wants to use her case to go after the town’s smirking racist fucktwat of a district attorney (Michael O’Keefe).

No surprise this is based on a true story; it even happened against the backdrop of the Bush-v.-Gore tussle of 2000, a coincidence the film is unable to resist bringing up again and again. What American Violet has going for it is what is objectively its downfall—namely its well-played shamelessness. Director Tim Disney (yes, relation) knows how to pace his film for maximum manipulation, and the script has a satisfyingly classical structure that builds and builds while never losing grip on the toils of its heroine.

More important, Disney has that surname and can score a terrific cast—among them Alfre Woodard, Will Patton and impressive newcomer Baharie—to lend nuance to a movie that truly needs it. For roughly five seconds, American Violet hints that it might extend its focus to the whole town, showing how white-driven microcosms wrestle, messily, to modernize racially. Now would be the perfect time for that movie. American Violet isn’t it.

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