Sometimes we lose sight of how good it feels to find a strong, honest, simple story. Slipping into a well-told tale is the easiest thing in the world — something so natural we don’t even have to think about it. The action begins and all of a sudden we’re swept away with it. So it is with American Violet, the story of a woman who wasn’t expected to fight back when she was wronged.
As the film opens in the presidential election year of 2000, Dee Roberts (played by newcomer Nicole Beharie in the second screen role of her career) is an African-American, single mother of four in a small east-central Texas town. One day after her shift waiting tables at a diner, Dee comes home to find that police have raided her housing complex and that she’s under arrest for distributing drugs in a school zone. She’s taken to the lockup, booked, and bail is set at $70,000. Her family can’t afford that, so she languishes in the county jail, where she’s counseled by a court-appointed defense attorney.
Right away, we’re shocked that Dee has been charged. From everything we’ve seen of her in her brief time on-screen, she is a responsible, caring mother who works hard to take care of her children and who always makes arrangements with her mother, Alma (Alfre Woodard), to watch the kids while she’s at work. Dee’s caregiving instincts even extend to the African violets she carefully waters each day. If she had been dealing drugs, it happened offscreen. Dee gives every appearance of being an unjustly accused person.
Turns out Dee Roberts is only a pawn in a cynical political game of power that has been going in for years in the town of “Melody” — the movie name for the actual Texas community of Hearn, where Regina Kelly, the real-life single mom on whom the screenplay is based, went through the ordeal depicted in American Violet. Dee’s public defender advises her to cop a guilty plea in exchange for a suspended sentence.
Later in the movie, we’re informed that the felony plea-bargain rate in the United States is 95 percent — predicated on the Justice Department awarding funds to jurisdictions based on number of convictions. In the county where Dee lives, the district attorney, a slimy pol named Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe), has long made local African Americans the target of indiscriminate drug sweeps, assuming that poor black people in the projects will plead out even if they’re innocent just to get out of jail, not realizing that the guilty plea brands them as felons and opens up a host of other troubles in getting housing, jobs, etc. DA Beckett, the police, the courts, and even Dee’s twerpy public defender assume she’ll knuckle under like all the rest.
But Dee refuses. She’s trying to rebuild her life after some youthful bad choices, and this guilty plea is something she flat-out will not accept. That’s when ACLU lawyer David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) and Sam Conroy (Will Patton), a local criminal defender who knows all the players well, step into Dee’s life and help her in her struggle for justice. She’ll sue the DA and the police. Along the way, we’re shown (surprise, surprise) that the DA is an unabashed racist who treats black people as if they were uppity mischief-makers on his plantation, and that even in the depths of East Texas, there are a few folks who will stand up and fight the power at great cost to themselves, simply to get the truth out in the open air.
Director Tim Disney (grandson of Roy O. Disney and great-nephew of Walt) and writer-producer Bill Haney wisely frame Dee Roberts’ decision to resist in Erin Brockovich terms, as an outsider’s crusade against overwhelming odds. Actor Beharie makes the best of it. The Juilliard graduate, whose only previous film part was in the football drama The Express, is probably a little too glamorous-looking to play a waitress with four kids from four different fathers, but when she gets a scene such as the jail visit, in which Dee tries to relate to her mother and her children through a smudged porthole, Beharie wrings every ounce of emotion out of it.
Her supporting cast is just as able. Character actor Patton has spent much of his career playing villains, so it’s refreshing once in awhile to see him as ambivalent (Wendy and Lucy), or, in the role of Sam Conroy, as a good old boy trying to erase his guilt at not testifying on a race murder he witnessed in his youth. Veteran character player O’Keefe, a 1980s teenage everyman in The Great Santini and Caddyshack, has a field day with the fiendish boss Beckett, on the heels of his fine supporting role as the sympathetic cop in Frozen River. Rapper Xzibit handles the bad-guy part of Dee’s abusive ex, Darrell, as if he had lived it. And who wouldn’t want Alfre Woodard as an understanding mama?
There’s often a fine line between simple and simpleminded. American Violet deals in strongly drawn, elemental characters, in particular a woman who fights for her rights. Dee, her mother, and her lawyers are the good guys; DA Beckett and the rest of the town’s power players are the baddies. But the story’s simplicity doesn’t mean it’s fraudulent. Less a social-problem film than a drama of personal courage, American Violet sees its duty as a fight for truth, and it refuses to shrink.
Grown-up moviegoers, however, should probably shrink away from Battle for Terra, an animated sci-fi adventure populated by big-eyed, friendly outer-space critters, one of whom, Mala (voice of Evan Rachel Wood), falls in love with a trooper from Earth named Jim (voice of Luke Wilson) in the midst of an invasion of their planet by oxygen-starved Earthling refugees. In short, the gorgeous, gulping guppies of Terra are menaced by macho mammalian marauders, and only love can save the day.
Nice character design. The inhabitants of Terra resemble graceful winged sea creatures, especially the giant sky whales. But there’s something chilly and remote about writer-director Aristomenis Tsirbas’ mythmaking, environmentally correct as it is. We have no trouble believing that humans have ruined Earth, but somehow we balk at any remedy a human screenwriter could cook up. If there were ever a need for artificial intelligence, this is it. E.T., phone your agent.