This is a prime example of how good movies get shafted just because they don't fit the stereotypes of what Hollywood wants to keep putting in theaters about us. As long as we are being clowns and/or the movie is preceded by a "Tyler Perry's", the powers-that-be doesn't mind distributing those flicks. Any film about the Black experience that doesn't fall into one of those categories...good luck in getting it distributed.
"American Violet" is based on the real-life events surrounding a drug raid on the poor, predominantly Black housing projects of Arlington Springs in a rural the rural Texas town of Melody. During the raid, the police target Dee (Nicole Beharie), a single mother of four with no prior drug charges. All because of a tip from a single informant (Anthony Mackie in an uncredited role) who is a former mental patient and drug-user bullied by the police to provide names.
When the defendant assigned to her case tries to pressure her into taking a 10-year suspended sentence, Dee rightly refuses, insisting she did not do anything wrong. Her courage draws the attention of the ACLU. They have their lawyers David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) and his assistant Byron Hill (Malcolm Barrett) team up with local counsel Sam Conroy (Will Patton) to build a case against shady D.A. Calvin Beckett (Michael O'Keefe).
The film draws you in right from the beginning with the stirring image of the military-style raid. We see children in the midst of all the chaos looking bewildered and scared while the adults are showing disdain. More than that though, it allows you to cast a little doubt yourself as to Dee's innocence. She seems like a pleasant enough person who would never be involved with drug dealings, but there's not enough time to truly discern it before she's arrested. That adds to the drama of "American Violet". The whole time you're wanting her to beat this case, you're hoping something doesn't pop out that we didn't learn earlier that indicates she was involved with some drugs. It's one of the rare instances when lack of character development is effective.
At first glance, I thought that Dee may have been played by Kimberly Elise. They certainly look like they could be related. The other reason being that Beharie just plays this role too brilliantly to be a newcomer. She portrays Dee the entire time as a mother that is on the brink of exploding and is trying everything she can to keep it together. Even the one time she does let her emotions get the best of her, you can still tell she's holding back. Beharie should have a bright future ahead of her with a performance like this one.
I was trying to figure out why the brotha attorney remained quiet throughout most of the pre-trial process. Especially since he was being played by the cat I had enjoyed in the new comedy series "Better Off Ted". Was he there just to be a token for the ACLU? Then I immediately found out why it was done like that. Byron (Barrett) was an integral part of the best scene in the movie: the moment when they finally get the D.A. to crack in his deposition and admit that he truly is a racist. Although it was a little distracting separating Barrett from the nerd role of his comedy series, that scene certainly helped make it easier.
"American Violet" is one of those movies that will tick you off as they show living proof of how some southern communities still practice racism. Even moreso when you learn that after all was said and done, not only did the D.A. keep his job, but he ended up getting re-elected. If there is one thing this joint teaches us it's whatever you do, don't commit a crime in Texas. Those plea bargains are no joke.
It's just a shame that a movie of this caliber didn't get the proper exposure it deserved. There should be a nice mix of the blockbusters, the family films, the popcorn flicks and real-life dramas like "American Violet" in theaters as the same time so we have more variety. I could see this being a perfect fit at our Fleur Cinema that specializes in features just like this; however, even that place didn't get it. Thank goodness for Netflix or I would have missed out on one of 2009's best offerings.
My rating: A