If you think institutional racial prejudice in the South is a thing of the past, "American Violet" is here to set you straight. Based on a true story set in 2000, it's about Dee Roberts (not her real name), a single 24-year-old mother of four in rural Texas whose life, already bleak, is made nightmarish when she is mistakenly rounded up during a drug bust.
As played by Nicole Beharie, Dee is no shrinking (American) violet. Exasperated but spirited, she has gumption to spare. When the local district attorney, Calvin Beckett (Michael O'Keefe), sweeps the police through her all-black housing project, arresting 29 people, she is waiting tables in a local diner. The police then burst in, drag her out in handcuffs, and toss her into a squalid Texas prison. She isn't even clear at first on the reason for the arrest: Was it all those unpaid parking tickets?
Dee has no record of substance abuse and no drugs were found in any searches of her premises. And yet this innocent woman is faced with a damning decision: Plead guilty and go free as a felon, or fight the charges and risk a long-term prison sentence and the loss of custody of her four children.
Director Tim Disney and screenwriter Bill Haney lay out Dee's story with a minimum of fuss. They are smart enough to realize that the material is compelling all on its own. They are also lucky to have Beharie, who has appeared in only one other movie – "The Express," about football great Ernie Davis – as their lead actress. Beharie doesn't make the mistake of playing Dee as a heroine aware of her own heroism. We identify with her because she puts us right into Dee's well-worn shoes.
Dee's decision to fight her charges is not simplistically rendered. Were it not for the fact that, as a felon, she would lose most of her federal benefits, including food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, housing subsidies, and perhaps the right to claim her children, she might well have taken the plea bargain. And when she does decide to fight, at the instigation of an ACLU attorney, David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson), and a former local narcotics officer and assistant district attorney, Sam Conroy (Will Patton), she does so with great hesitation and against the vehement objections of her mother (Alfre Woodard). Dee knows how stacked the deck is. But the ACLU has chosen Dee's case because of its overtly racist contours and because the DA relied on a single unreliable informant, a druggie facing charges of his own. They think they can win.
The filmmakers anticipate most of our questions, so we don't often feel as if we're ahead of the story. Why, for example, does the DA press ahead with charges against Dee even though he himself doubts her guilt? The answer lies in the economic motivation behind these busts, the way arrests and convictions of the poor feed the for-profit maw of the federally or state-funded prison system.
I don't mean to make "American Violet" sound like an episode of the History Channel. It's more interesting than that, largely due to the performances. The filmmakers keep the camera right where it belongs – on Dee's beleaguered, ardent face. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, drug references, and language.)