American Violet tries so hard to establish its topical inclinations that it plays them up at the expense of the personalized drama. Through constant allusions to the film’s setting of Texas in the waning days of George W.’s governorship director Tim Disney never stops reminding you that he wants the story of the false imprisonment of Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie) to emblemize the plight of all minorities victimized by racially tinged abuses of power. Instead of telling the intimate story of one woman’s steadfast perseverance against impossible, imposing forces Disney opts for the bland inspirational triumph template.
As the picture opens the police arrest Dee, a hardworking single mother of four, and baselessly charge her with selling drugs. It’s soon apparent that the arrest is part of a sweeping attempt by Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe), the vile, racist district attorney of Melody, Texas, to “clean up” the town’s public housing, in which Dee resides. Soon, in a nightmare scenario for the Bill O’Reillys of the world, ACLU attorney David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) is on the scene. He and local, good ol’ boy lawyer Sam Conroy (Will Patton) advocate for Dee’s release and, after her prison sentence is dropped in exchange for a guilty plea, persuade her to reject the deal and fight to clear her name.
The movie works best when it shuts out the politics and focuses on Dee’s life at home. Her interactions with her children and mother Alma (Alfre Woodard) establish the extraordinary nature of her personal sacrifice in challenging Beckett. The film depicts mother-child connections marked by ferocious protectiveness and impassioned, no holds barred love as Dee and Alma struggle mightily to carve out some stability for the children within an increasingly unstable world. Even if a subplot involving the deadbeat father (Xzibit) of two of the children feels like warmed over melodrama Beharie, Woodard and the young actors bring a real sense of emotional authenticity to the Roberts family bond.
When Disney shifts into agitprop territory the film promptly falls apart, lost in a sea of good intentions. It suits no one to reduce such a unique story to moralistic fodder. Yet virtually every detail of the sociopolitical milieu evoked by the picture underlines the divisive approach taken. David Cohen is depicted as such a kind, saintly figure he seems heaven sent, serving as a Jewish Messianic figure for the small Texas community. Standing in diametric opposition is Beckett, so unabashedly racist he’s impossible to take seriously. He’s such a hateful personality that it’s difficult to believe he could ever have been elected district attorney and it’s even harder to regard him as a threatening villain. The filmmakers have forgotten the critical role measures of subtlety and nuance play in convincingly evoking real world evil. Beckett might as well be Darth Vader.
The straightforward docudrama cinematography clashes with the movie’s Hollywoodized implausibility, creating the discordant effect of a film wanting to be taken as fact but so clearly trading in dramatic fictions. That inauthentic atmosphere engulfs the depiction of the legal proceedings, with the movie weighed down by its emphasis of the symbolic importance of each small victory won by Dee and her lawyers. The dialogue relentlessly drives home the significance of Dee’s decision to pursue the case against Beckett, the injustices being carried out across the country and the daunting odds they’re facing. The business talk, delivered by Nelson and others with comical earnestness, grows wearisome.
Disney has filled the movie with interesting actors, including the charismatic newcomer Beharie, but he’s so wrapped up in the movie’s message that he rarely gives them sufficient opportunity to add real texture to the characters. It’s no coincidence that the most compelling moment in the entire film is a monologue in which Sam, a white Christian community pillar, explains the personal reasons he’s joined the case. It has the truthful, resigned sadness of a man who knows he’s spent a lifetime promulgating a corrupt system and, as delivered by Patton, it gets closer to the heart of American Violet than a thousand obvious repetitions of the film’s message ever could.