Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review – American Violet

October 20, 2010

American Violet – U.S., 2008

In Texas, all it took was the testimony of one person for the authorities to be able to arrest someone and charge them with a crime. Think about that. Just one person. The informant could be anyone, a good Samaritan, someone out for revenge, a reliable police witness, or someone like Eddie Porter, a borderline schizophrenic so out of it that, according to a police officer that uses the information Porter provides, he can hardly distinguish up from down. So just why would people charged with serving and protecting the good people of Texas arrest someone based on the testimony of someone that unreliable? According to the film American Violet, one of the reasons is that the state of Texas receives money for every person that is convicted of a crime. I have no doubt that this financial reward was meant to benefit efficiency and hard work, but it led to the creation of quotas – there must be a certain number of convictions a year - and what better way to increase Texas’s conviction rate than to have authorities arrest people that they believe they can easily coerce into accepting a “generous” plea bargain, especially after threatening them with financial ruin and exceptionally long jail terms.

It’s hard to believe, but it gets worse. In the film, the accused are often not told the reasons for their arrests. The evidence against them, in this case a tape recording with the supposedly incriminating evidence on it, is so muffled as to make identifying the voices on it practically impossible. And the court-appointed public defender repeatedly tells his own clients that the case against them is strong, that they’re looking at very long prison sentences ranging from sixteen to twenty-five years, and that the plea that District Attorney Calvin Beckett’s office is offering is a godsend – never mind the fact that if they take it, they will lose the right to vote and quite possible the place they call home. So just what is someone in this situation expected to do? Fight the charges in court? Or is what Alma Roberts tells her daughter Dee after she is arrested true? Does everybody plea?

The central character in American Violet is Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a 23-year-old single mother raising four kids in the fictional town of Harmon County. (The events on which the film is based actually took place in Hearne, Texas.) In the film, a swarm of armed men swoop in on a small low-income housing unit in November 2000, looking for twenty-eight individuals, one of whom is Dee. Dee’s arrest is particularly humiliating, for it occurs at work in front of her employer, her co-workers, and her customers. In jail, she’s given a choice – plead guilty to distributing drugs in a school zone, a crime she says she didn’t commit, or risk seeing her children through a glass barrier for perhaps the next twenty years. To make her decision even more difficult, the father of two of her children (Xzibit) seems intent on taking custody of them, despite the fact that, according to Dee, the woman he is living with is a convicted child molester.

The tactics of the district attorney are soon brought to the attention of the ACLU, which decides to use Dee’s case to file a class action lawsuit in an effort to stop the racially motivated drug sweeps that have been going on in her neighborhood for as long as Dee can remember. To aid them, two lawyers for the ACLU, David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) and Byron Hill (Malcolm Barrett) enlist the services of a local lawyer named Sam Conroy (Will Patton), who just happens to also be a former narcotics officer who still has friends on the police force. Eventually, we get the obligatory scene in which Conroy explains his reasons for taking the case. Sure, it’s a cliché, but it works surprisingly well. In fact, it’s one of the best scenes in the film.

American Violet is strongest when it focuses on the plight of Dee and her family, for there is real drama in her search for justice, financial stability, and security for her four children. The scenes that detail her ongoing struggle with her ex-boyfriend, Darrell Hughes, are indeed quite powerful. It’s when the film focuses on the court case that it begins to lose some of its intensity. Part of the problem is that the film’s supporting characters don’t actually do very much. Convoy has a few interesting moments, but we don’t actually see him doing any leg work. Cohen gets angry at witnesses from time to time, but that’s really about all he does. As for Hill, he sits silently for most of the film, making his later importance a bit surprising. However, perhaps the film’s biggest problem – and it’s really no fault of anyone in particular - is that there is simply less drama in following a series of depositions than there is in following an actual trial. In a deposition, even if there is the inevitable “Did you order a Code-Red” moment, it doesn’t resolve anything right away. Rather, it just necessitates an additional trip to the judge’s quarters, which strips the film of some of the suspense it has tried so hard built up. Again, it’s no one’s fault, really. That’s just the way the events played out in real life. I’m sure Hollywood would have written a slightly more intense conclusion had it been given the chance.

American Violet was directed by Tim Disney, the great-nephew of a certain man whose first name is Walt. Disney does a good job with the material, and he gets rather accomplished performances from his lead actors, in particular Nicole Beharie (here making her film debut), Xzibit, Alfre Woodard, and Will Patton. Charles S. Dutton is effective yet underused as Reverend Sanders. We’ve seen him in roles like this before, and rarely do they give him a chance to really dazzle us with his dramatic skills. American Violet may not make the most riveting legal drama, but it does shed light on some of the social injustices that continue to plague society. According to the film, some of these injustices have stopped. For example, authorities can no longer arrest someone on the basis of one anonymous witness. That’s a step in the right direction. That Calvin Beckett was re-elected District Attorney shows just how far we still have to go, though. (on DVD)

3 stars

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