Image Entertainment // 2008 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // August 14th, 2009
When the law is without order, and justice is far from just, one woman must make a stand.
American Violet opens with an intriguing juxtaposition: Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie, The Express) helps her four young children get their breakfast and get ready for their day before making her way to work at a diner; meanwhile, a hefty contingent of police officers prepares for the massive takedown of a housing complex, filing into the backs of moving trucks under the watchful eye of a hovering helicopter. The police raid the complex, rounding up a collection of accused drug dealers. Then they come for Dee -- an unlikely suspect if there ever was one -- at her work.
She thinks she's been picked up for some outstanding parking tickets, so it's with some surprise that Dee learns she's been accused of selling narcotics in a school zone. The charges are false, but that doesn't really matter: everyone involved is looking for Dee to take a plea deal, get out of prison that day with a record, and help pad the county's District Attorney's conviction record. Instead, Dee agrees to help an ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson, Syriana) sue the county, the DA, and the police involved in the raid for racial discrimination.
American Violet is based on a true story, and depicts a stunning reality worthy of outrage. It's got both a mission and a message, and unfolds in a workmanlike fashion without much in the way of stylistic flourish or clever turn of phrase. It's the type of material that could easily digress into movie-of-the-week territory, telegraphing a happy, inspirational ending from the opening scenes. Fortunately, thanks to a compelling plot and, especially, top-notch acting across the board, American Violet is eminently watchable, less predictable then you might imagine, and a well-made courtroom drama.
A great bit of writing occurs early on: one of Dee's kids is given a ceramic bowl to take home from her grandmother's apartment to her own (across the courtyard), and is told to be careful not to break it as it's got some sentimental value. Instantly we're on edge hoping the child won't trip; then the raid starts up around her and she's caught in the middle, standing in stunned silence as all hell breaks loose around her, holding the bowl. There are a few of these small, dramatic touches that up the ante just enough to make American Violet feel fresh.
This movie's cast is largely comprised of well-known, go-to players on the character-acting scene. Tim Blake Nelson's been busy since breaking out in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and he's pitch perfect as the crusading, slightly cynical ACLU lawyer. Michael O'Keefe, so imposing in a small role in Michael Clayton, underplays with a sinister slow burn what could be a rather arch role as the racist DA. Will Patton (Armageddon) exudes understated strength -- the kind you only take out if you're going to use it, while Alfre Woodard (Mumford) shows unconditional love as Dee's mother Alma. Even Xzibit (The X-Files: I Want to Believe) quickly shakes any Pimp My Ride baggage to present an imposing presence as Dee's abusive ex, looking to exploit the situation to regain custody of his children. The standout, though, and the heart and soul of this picture, is newcomer Nicole Beharie, who is immediately appealing, fiery, and, most importantly, emotionally honest. The character of Dee is far from saintly, and Beharie finds truth and humanity in all facets of the character, making the stakes seem that much higher. This is an actress who has a long and exciting film career ahead of her. Director Tim Disney deserves to be commended for helping the entire cast remain grounded, keeping this drama from straying into melodramatic territory.
We were provided a screening copy of American Violet for review purposes, so I can't reliably judge what the final audio and video quality will be. However, the screener features above-average fine detail and seemingly accurate reproduction of the film's earthy color palette. No ringing or mosquito noise intruded on the image. Audio was clear and relatively dynamic for a talky courtroom drama, however the screener features 2.0 stereo rather than the 5.1 mix that will be on the final release. No special features save the theatrical trailer appear on the disc.
American Violet doesn't push any filmmaking boundaries or dazzle with technique, nor does it aim to. Instead, it tells a straightforward, humanist story in a persuasive way. This is activist cinema shrouded in a cloak of entertainment, and that's all right by me. By not pretending to be something that it's not -- a thriller, say -- American Violet becomes immediately endearing, and it's easy to appreciate its modest ambitions. I recommend checking this one out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13