A docudrama about manufacturing felons, Texas style
Nov 20, 2009 (Updated Nov 21, 2009)
Review by Stephen Murray
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:cast, especially Nicole Beharie, Will Patton, and Michael O'Keefe
Cons: that such (gross mis)conduct is routine
The Bottom Line: Not great cinema, but offers harrowing drama (not least in that such coercion as is potrayed is rarely challenged) and a phenomenal debut performance by Nicole Beharie.
Seeing Saintpaulia, commonly called “African violets,” in the 2008 move “American Violet made me wonder if the flower really is African. Saintpaulia really does come from East Africa.
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The movie’s heroine, Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie, who carried the movie straight from Julliard) raises African violets and four daughters aged from 4 to 8, fathered by three men, two of whom are in prison for drug felonies and the third of whom (Xzibit as Darrell )is nearby in the same housing project, abusive and eager to have custody of his two daughters, though he seems to me to have his hands full with a malicious vixen and other children whose parentage is not mentioned.
Dee is a popular waitress at a white-owned and mostly white-patronized restaurant tin Harmony, Texas in November 2000. When she is handcuffed and hauled away, she thinks it must be for unpaid parking tickets. She is, however, charged with selling drugs near a school. Though not a flight risk, her bail is set at $70,000, an unattainable amount, so she languishes in jail three weeks before the single informant (a former mental patient coerced into accusing a list of people living in a housing project) and prosecution witness is discredited in court. But not before some others have accepted plea bargains.
Dee’s mother, the formidable Alfre Woodard) hard urged Dee to accept a plea bargain, but Dee refused, certain of her innocence. (How one can be black and living in a housing project in Texas and believe that is sufficient is not explained in the script!)
A prototypically Jewish, out-of-state ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) wants to challenge the modus operandi of jailing blacks (all the drug indictments are of blacks) on the basis of a single informant and persuades Dee (over her mother’s horrified objections) to sue the good-ole-boy DA (Michael O'Keefe) and the policemen involved in the assault on the housing project. A local lawyer who trained the drug taskforce (Will Patton) reluctantly signs on. He knows how things work and that bucking DA Calvin Beckett is not going to make him popular with the local establishment.
Jaded as I believe myself to be, especially about the Texas legal system and the court-appointed lawyer who see their job as persuading accused to accept plea bargains, I was still shocked that child custody was decided not by a judge but by the DA, and that a DA is not automatically recused from deciding custody for someone who is suing him.
There is nothing special about the mise-en-scène of the movie, but the performances and small details are superb. The three deposition scenes are perhaps too dramatic to be wholly credible and I think that the backdrop of a higher court aborting counting presidential ballots in Florida and awarding the office to the then-governor of Texas whose callousness to executing people, almost all of whom were nonwhite (41 of the 151 were “represented by public defenders who mounted no defense, and a third of defense lawyers whose clients were executed during W’s governorship were later disbarred or sanctioned by Texas courts for misconduct).
Tim Disney does what he tries to do (show injustice, not razzle-dazzle cinema) about as good as it can be done. I don’t think “American Violet is great cinema, but it is very good drama with genuinely superb acting all around.
Although the DA has been re-elected since settling the case (keeping the depositions videos out of public view in court and the likelihood—even in Texas—of his being disbarred), the practice of indicting on the say-so of a single informant has ceased. I don’t know about DAs deciding about custody, though.
I didn't listen to the director's commentary. There's a 4-minute Telluride appearance by him, Beharie, and the real-life model. (Disney says 95% of what's shown happened, though events are telescoped.)
©2009, Stephen O. Murray
4 lean-n-mean VIII and Texas-Sweden (I?) writeoffs
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