Injustice for All
by Sarah Silver
Dir. Tim Disney, U.S., Samuel Goldwyn Films
In 2000, sociopolitically minded director Tim Disney heard a story on NPR about an African American woman in a small Texas town arrested under the false accusation of selling drugs and then bullied into making an impossible choice: either confess and go free (but with a felony on her record), or refuse to confess and be sentenced to 16 to 25 years in prison. Disney, along with frequent collaborator Bill Haney, considered the idea of making a documentary (their 2007 documentary The Price of Sugar also deals with social injustice, detailing the exploitation of Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic), but, perhaps misguidedly, decided a narrative would work better, since the events were already in the past.
Unfortunately, the unforced intensity and raw emotion that often comes naturally or even serendipitously in a documentary with a political agenda can prove difficult to match in narrative film, and Disney’s attempts to ramp up emotional impact here result in clunky conventions and mundane metaphors. American Violet begins with a scene of domestic routine wherein Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a young mother, tends to her four children and her delicate potted violet. Later, when morale is low and the future looks bleak, the flower appears to be dead, but when we see it one last time at film’s end, we know that Dee was right to keep it, for she has nursed it back to its initial thriving state. The symbol is perfunctory, and the same is true of American Violet, which walks a fine line between moving and maudlin, with the filmmakers only occasionally showing enough restraint and good judgment to yield genuinely heartfelt results.
We know from the opening by-the-book montage of white police officers suiting up to raid an all-black apartment complex (guns cock, doors slam, glass breaks) that there will be little room for nuance in this celluloid harangue. Interspersed in this montage is news footage of the Bush/Gore election, another inelegant reminder of the film’s single-minded mission to edify and inform. Soon thereafter, Dee is arrested at the diner where she works. Once in jail and wrongly accused, she’s saddled with a baby-faced public defender working for the wrong side, interested only in settling as quickly as possible so as not to damage any future relations with the dastardly D.A., Mr. Beckett (pronounced by the residents of Melody, Texas, like “bigot”). So far, the film feels like a heavy-handed nightmare; the wrong man wins a rigged election, the homes of black people are invaded without reason, and the whole world is out to get an innocent woman.
Enter David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson), a Jewish Yankee lawyer spouting dialogue sprinkled with facts and statistics (“An African-American man has a better chance of being charged with a crime than of graduating college”) and looking for someone to defend. Along with his partner, Byron White (Malcolm Barrett), Cohen visits a black church and provides the parishioners (and the audience) with key information: “Drug task forces use military tactics to terrorize poor people. Meanwhile, federal money goes to the counties that convict the most people, and plea bargains are aggressively pushed to hasten those convictions.” Cohen and White convince a third lawyer (Will Patton), a native Texan, to help defend Dee, and he gradually accedes via a monologue that would make Atticus Finch beam.
As Dee, newcomer Beharie exudes a sexy self-righteousness; she has Erin Brockovich’s fashion sense and knows that a plunging neckline and well-fitting jeans go a long way toward helping her get her point across to hostile males. But as competent as Beharie is, she only has one note to play repeatedly in every scene; she is proud, she is virtuous, she has been wronged. The one time the audience is almost allowed to see weakness in her (she becomes unhinged when her ex won’t give her daughters back one night, and the damage she does to his car may jeopardize her trial), the filmmakers immediately revoke that right in the following scene, when she explains that her ex has a history of abuse and his live-in girlfriend is a convicted child molester. So how can we fault her?
In fact, the filmmakers seem to be constantly playing defense regarding Dee. Anyone who questions her spotless morality is made to seem like a redneck buffoon. For instance, the ludicrous lawyer who brings up the fact that her four daughters have three different fathers is a caricature spewing Victorian values. As though he doesn’t trust the audience enough to believe that an imperfect person can be falsely accused, Disney keeps elevating Dee onto an ivory pedestal, one that grows higher with each scene. There’s not much here to challenge; all is laid out in black and white from the beginning. American Violet makes it too easy for you to turn off your brain and passively enjoy it—it’s a guilty pleasure of the Lifetime “Give-Me-Back-My-Baby” sort.