Image Entertainment // 2009 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 13th, 2009
Inspired by a true story.
"How did that affect me? I spent 21 days in a cage."
Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie, The Express) is a young mother of four living in Texas. Dee's life is fairly ordinary; she works at a local restaurant and does what she can to get by. One day, to Dee's complete shock, the police handcuff her and place her in jail. Initially, Dee suspects that law enforcement officials are simply going to extreme measures due to a couple of her unpaid parking tickets. It turns out that she's actually being charged with distributing narcotics in a school zone. The crime carries with it a punishment of 16 to 25 years in prison. The District Attorney offers Dee a plea deal: if she'll plead guilty, she'll receive a suspended sentence of 10 years, meaning she gets to go home immediately despite having a major crime on her permanent record. Knowing that she has to get home to her children as soon as possible, Dee accepts the offer. However, she remains bitter about the great injustice done to her by the Texas legal system. With the help of her mother (Alfre Woodard, Star Trek: First Contact), a representative of the ACLU (Tim Blake Nelson, The Incredible Hulk), and a local attorney (Will Patton, Remember the Titans), Dee seeks justice by attempting to sue the DA.
American Violet is a fairly melodramatic film that presents its tidied-up "Inspired by a True Story" tale in a conventional and predictable fashion. There are no shades of gray; the battles are turned into simplistic David vs. Goliath conflicts, and everything is resolved in a tidy and emotionally satisfying manner. Despite this, I found myself somewhat moved by the story. For all the familiarity of the film, the core of its story resonates. When Tim Blake Nelson's ACLU representative informs a church congregation full of frustrated and confused citizens that over 95% of legal cases are settled through plea deals that individuals from poor communities can't afford to turn down, there is a collective scowl that sweeps across the room. I scowled, too. Perhaps the sort of injustice that happened to Dee Roberts doesn't generally happen in such an overtly dramatic manner, but that doesn't change the fact that such injustices have happened and continue to happen to this day.
The strong performances and the convincing little details of the small-town setting are what make the film work. This is not a one-size-fits-all story about the sort of thing that could happen to any unsuspecting American citizen; this is the story of the kind of things that happens to a specific group of people (impoverished African-Americans) living in specific parts of America (small, conservative towns with exceptionally ruthless individuals in positions of power). It may not be entirely fair, but the righteous rage it demonstrates is appropriate. There are some interesting conversations between Nelson's character and some of the local folks in which the ACLU representative is constantly reminded that, "This isn't New York, things don't work that way here."
Beharie is natural and convincing in the lead role, never overplaying scenes that are practically begging to be overplayed. However, the supporting performances are the ones that really stood out to me. Alfre Woodard hits some very interesting notes as Beharie's mother, not offering the expected support for her daughter's righteous cause but rather suggesting she should simply forget about it for the sake of avoiding further trouble. Will Patton and Tim Blake Nelson excel as two very different attorneys. Patton plays a man attempting to work up the courage to take on Dee's case due to the knowledge that he still has to live in a very prejudiced small town when it's all over; Nelson plays a man attempting to restrain his noble impulses long enough to find practical solutions. Charles S. Dutton also has some nice scenes as the pastor of the local church, though his character had less screen time than I would have liked. Finally, Michael O'Keefe surprised me with his exceptional turn as the exasperatingly indifferent DA. According to IMDb, I've seen the actor in quite a few films since his 1980 star turn in Caddyshack, but this is the first time in recent memory that his work has made a distinct positive impression on me.
The film is blessed with an excellent hi-def transfer. The film is by no means a visual spectacle, offering an intimate portrait of a rather dull, unremarkable town through a rather muted color scheme. Even so, the imagery is captured with considerable depth and rich detail. Blacks are impressively deep, shading is excellent and the level of consistency throughout is noteworthy both during brighter and darker scenes. Facial detail is excellent, flesh tones look warm and accurate and background detail is stellar. The audio is mostly very subdued and not particularly noteworthy, aside from a few key sequences that create a surprisingly immersive cacophony (see the scene in which Dee beats up her ex-husband's truck for an example of what I mean). Extras on the disc include an informative and thoughtful audio commentary with director Tim Disney (whose last name, alas, seems appropriate considering the over-simplistic nature of the film), a handful of interviews from the film's premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and a theatrical trailer.
Most of the points I would bring up in this section have been addressed in the previous section. The performances and setting seem so convincing; why must the screenplay and direction veer so hard into obvious melodrama, when there's so much real drama built into the scenario?
American Violet may be conventional, but it succeeds despite its self-imposed limitations. The Blu-ray release presents the film effectively.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13