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Originally published Monday, October 12, 2009 at 2:17 PM

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Movie review

'American Violet': A hard-hitting, fact-based drama about racism today

"American Violet" is a fact-based drama that's about as damning an indictment of good-ole-boy racism as anything the movies have given us lately.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'American Violet,' with Nicole Beharie, Alfre Woodard, Will Patton, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael O'Keefe. Directed by Tim Disney, from a screenplay by Bill Haney. 103 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, drug references and language.

"American Violet," a fact-based drama that opened the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival here last spring, is about as damning an indictment of good-ole-boy racism as anything the movies have given us lately.

While it may be about as subtle as a swinging sledgehammer, it does leave its mark. Today it's bypassing theaters and going straight to DVD.

Talented newcomer Nicole Beharie plays the central character: Dee, an African-American waitress with four children who is arrested at her restaurant during a police raid. Thinking she's going to have to pay $782 in parking tickets, she's more than surprised to discover that she's been accused of dealing cocaine.

The filmmakers present her dilemma as business-as-usual in small-town Texas, where racist raids on black communities help to fill quotas and prisons. The year is 2000, George Bush and Al Gore are competing for the presidency, but we might as well be stranded in the bigoted Depression-era South of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The Atticus Finch character here is split into two characters: an honest local attorney (Will Patton) and an ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) who needs his help and connections. They thwart a useless, court-appointed lawyer who encourages Dee to take a plea bargain, which will leave her free to see her kids but branded as a felon.

Even her mother (Alfre Woodard) wonders if this may be the only decent deal they can get, and a friend who was arrested at the same time chooses to take it. The pressure to take this "easy" way out increases, as it becomes obvious that a racist district attorney (Michael O'Keefe) won't make it easy for her to function when bail is set at $70,000.

Instantly believable as mother and daughter, Woodard and Beharie turn this decision-making process into the central dilemma of the film. As they quarrel over who's being more practical or truthful, and Dee's ex-husband tries to win custody of the kids, the lawyers attempt to expose a system that's beyond corrupt.

As the court battles drag into 2001, television broadcasts track the progress of the Bush-Gore contest. Director Tim Disney and the writer-producer, Bill Haney, use the television clips to suggest that much more than a drug case is at stake here.

The bittersweet ending suggests that some battles are bound to be lost, while a select few will be won. O'Keefe makes a wonderfully sleazy villain, and Nelson and Patton bring a sense of hard-won integrity to their scenes, but this is finally a story about the bonds between women who choose not to give up.

John Hartl:

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