When making an issue film — a movie with a broader political message — straddling the line between entertainment and pedantry can be tricky. It’s important to convey the main point, but it’s even more important to entertain the audience in a way that makes them understand the point without spelling it out in an obvious, annoying fashion.
“American Violet” nuzzles right up against that line, especially in its closing moments. Fortunately for the filmmakers, the story is so compelling and intriguing that it’s easy for the audience to forget they’re being preached to.
The movie is based on the story of Regina Kelly, a young black mother in Hearne, Texas, who was falsely swept up in a drug raid. She was encouraged to plead guilty to felony drug charges in order to avoid a trial and the attendant decades-long prison sentence that would accompany a conviction. Instead of playing along, she fought back: The American Civil Liberties Union got involved, the district attorney was shown to be a raging racist, Miss Kelly was exonerated, and the system was reformed.
“American Violet” follows the same basic outline, with Miss Kelly re-christened Dee Roberts and played by first-time leading lady Nicole Beharie. Her story puts a human face on the excesses of the drug war: She comes to represent the danger of basing indictments on the word of a single informant, the racially tinged aspect of the war on drugs and the problem of sticking generations of adults with questionable felony convictions.
The issues are only resonant, though, because director Tim Disney and writer Bill Haney have created characters worth caring about and a story so fraught with outrageous aspects that it’s impossible for the audience not to sympathize with Dee and her beleaguered loved ones.
Yes, we occasionally get hit over the head with statistics — the United States has more citizens in prison than any other nation in the world; millions are disenfranchised by their felony convictions — but those facts tend to come out in the normal flow of the movie. Instead of interrupting the story to educate, the filmmakers allow the story to do the educating.
The cast is excellent. Miss Beharie shows an amazing range, from her disbelief at the injustice done to her to the love for her children to her joy upon exoneration. She’s a talented young actress and one to watch in years to come.
Joining her is a stellar stable of supporting actors. Southern character actor Will Patton excels as the attorney who bucks the system of the small Texas town in order to take on her case. Michael O’Keefe portrays Calvin Beckett, the racist district attorney who makes it his business to make Dee’s life as miserable as possible, with a sort of evil glee. Tim Blake Nelson’s ACLU lawyer/fish out of water is equally fun to watch.
The group of actors comprising Dee’s neighbors and family is no less impressive. Charles S. Dutton’s turn as the clergyman who suggests Dee as the poster child for the ACLU’s case is powerful, while Alfre Woodard is a pleasure to watch as Dee’s mother. Even rapper Xzibit has some solid screen time.
TITLE: “American Violet”
CREDITS: Directed by Tim Disney, written by Bill Haney
RATING: PG-13 (Thematic material, violence, drug references and language)
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
WEB SITE: https://www.americanviolet.com/
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS