American Violet begins with an awakening. Specifically, a family rises in the morning, their routine and interactions well-worn. A series of scene-setting shots lays out their residence in the projects and the railroad tracks they must cross into town, as well as an empty red swing that looms in a low angle close-up and a couple of disheveled Barbies not picked up. Young mother Dee (Nicole Beharie) feeds her four daughters, calms their squabbles, and then proceeds to water her plants, including an African violet.
As this splash of purple figures too prominently in the frame, it lays out an unfortunate inclination in Tim Disney’s film, that is, to spell out its concerns in large block letters. This inclination is underlined in the next moment, when the scene cuts to the imminent danger to these nice girls, the local cops outfitting themselves with vests, guns, and helmets riding across town to kick in apartment doors, careen their cruisers, and hover overhead in noisy choppers. The one arrestee you do know, of course, is Dee, picked up by a couple of red-faced cops as she’s at work as a diner waitress, her kids already dropped off at school and at her mother Alma’s (Alfre Woodard). Hauled away while her nice white lady employer looks on in horror (“Step away, ma’am”), Dee resists briefly, demanding an explanation, then assumes she’s been targeted for unpaid parking tickets. “I’m sorry,” she says on her way out the door. She has no idea.
Based on the infamous Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force case in Tulia, Texas (also the focus of Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen’s excellent documentary), American Violet makes clear the corruption and racism that pervades the official structures of its fictional town of Melody. Charged with dealing crack cocaine, Dee is wholly innocent and righteously appalled. By the time she’s visited by the ACLU lawyer David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson), she’s spent almost a month on jail and been urged repeatedly by her baby-faced public defender to take a plea. Dee’s wise enough to know this is no solution, as a convicted felon no longer has access to food stamps or public housing, essentials in the life that stretches before her, with four small daughters by three fathers, two in off-screen prison and the other a local derelict, Darrell (Xzibit). And so she resolves to trust in the legal system and even, because she’s the courageous hero of this story, to sue the DA who’s had her arrested.
Dee’s decision sets in motion the rest of the film’s minor drama, set in courtrooms and cramped apartments, diner booths and parking lots. She’s determined, she’s smart, she’s most always right, and she is, above all, innocent. The film doesn’t brook much in the way of complications, pitting Dee against an abused informant (Anthony Mackey, fine in a sadly reductive role) and an outrageous good-ol-boy of a DA, Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe), whose power is premised on a coterie of fat-faced white male supporters, bullies dressed up as lawyers and judges. The film underscores the political background for this premise, with repeated TV images showing the Bush v. Gore legal fight over the 2000 election (the Tulia arrests were initiated in 1999). As these reports illustrate the commonness of legal and political corruption, linking Bush’s ascent to the Federal Narcotics Task Force program that was, in fact, initiated in 1982, and authorized, essentially, to pay local and regional task forces per conviction. As Cohen helpfully explains, this means that the jurisdiction where Dee is arrested, for instance, seeks easy convictions and pleas from people — black people in particular — who are undereducated, compliant, and eager just to get out of jail, no matter the cost down the road.
Dee is fortunate to be noticed by Cohen, who has been tipped off to her sense of independence, by her pastor, Roc (that is, Charles Dutton playing Reverend Sanders). And she is even more fortunate to be represented by Sam Conroy, the localish attorney tapped by Cohen for the case. Though he’s reluctant to destroy his friendships and professional balances in the community (“I have to live here,” he needlessly reminds Cohen), Sam takes the case because he’s had his own race trauma during his childhood, which he narrates in a tender-and-stoic confessional moment that makes American Violet feel heavy-handed — again.
That’s not to say that the movie leaves it only to white men to save Dee from other white men. She has her own reserves of strength and intelligence and brings to bear her own strategies, including the use of her team’s only black lawyer, Byron Hill (Malcolm Barrett), during a key deposition. That this leads to a meltdown concerning a white authority’s use of the n-word that recalls the pre-redemption-by-cable-commentating story of Mark Fuhrman. The object of Hill’s clever examination is so undone by this obvious ploy that he does indeed lapse into sweating and calling his questioner “boy.”
The fiction teased out of the real events isn’t unbelievable. But the Tulia story was pretty incredible in itself, and that the resort to movie-plot-101 conventions is exasperating. The movie is most compelling when it leaves behind such iconography and focuses instead on details — Dee’s evolving, complicated relationship with her eight-year-old daughter, or her own negotiations with Alma, whose desire for quiet and safety above all is a function of her generation’s oppressions, not her own lack of resolve or strength. The women and girls form a compelling center for American Violet, so long as the film trusts in it.