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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
See That Every Man Should Be Free
by Donald Levit

Forty-five years after Claudette Colvin got pregnant at fifteen, and so lost her Montgomery bus poster-person place to Rosa Parks, “Dee Roberts” challenged de facto legal racism in Melody, Texas. American Violet tells her true story.

Director Tim Disney and writer-producer Bill Haney’s research, development and coordination took time after an NPR broadcast of the events on the eve of the 2000 presidential election, primarily because these filmmakers did not want to jeopardize ongoing legal proceedings. Presumably, since not much actual footage existed, they opted for acted narrative as opposed to documentary-like re-creation.

Dee (Nicole Beharie) had her first pregnancy at thirteen and is at twenty-four the caring single mother of four girls. She has waitressed for seven years to supplement sporadic child support from the father of two of them, Darrell Hughes (Xzibit) -- the other fathers are in jail for crack cocaine offenses -- who lives nearby with suspected child molester Claudia (Karimah Westbrook) and wants his children.

While this is a tale that needs to be told, the larger national ramifications are too baldly shouted, as by the Rev. Sanders (Charles S. Dutton) and ACLU lawyer David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson). Also, the characters are too black-and-white, although I don’t mean along racial lines, for there are good and bad among both, but in the sense of all-good or all-evil. Openly sermonizing its cause, the film reads and sees like television series stuff; no suspense is developed, and low-income housing and women’s house of detention alike are prettied up without any feeling for gritty reality.

An armed armored police raid at Arlington Springs Projects frightens law-abiders and children and rounds up numbers of alleged African-American drug-dealers, some guilty some not. The heroine’s refusal to play ball with the law results in official overkill leaning on her, but that is later and so hardly explains why two officers are detailed to cuff her at work at Sister’s diner. An arrest at sixteen for stealing baby supplies would not have been the reason, and the trashing of Darrell’s pickup has not yet occurred.

A single no-profile conviction more or less makes no difference, not only in one county or state but in the entire country, which, it is heavily underscored, makes a lucrative business of a penal system that incarcerates two million, overwhelmingly non-white and poor citizens. Bewildered and badly educated, browbeaten and physically beaten, lacking resources or influence, most of them have accepted plea bargaining, waiving the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers in exchange for theoretically reduced charges. “Admitted” felons, they lose many social and legal rights, including that of the vote, and face reduced employment opportunities.

Taking in the children, Dee’s mother Alma (Alfre Woodard) urges freedom through such confession, but, even confronted with hinted loss of custody, the woman denies guilt. Cohen and black co-lawyer Byron Hill (Malcolm Barrett) seek to make a test case of innocent Dee to defeat powerful regional district attorney Calvin Beckett (Michel O’Keefe) and his drug unit officers. Northern outsiders with limited funds and in need of local help, they approach former narcotics agent Sam Conroy (Will Patton), troubled by a youthful failure of courage in Louisiana.

Some in the community sympathize in private but remain silent in public; some cave in like arrested Gladys (Pamala Tyson) but encourage defendant Dee; others like Sanders are frustrated by blacks who either don’t vote or, felons, are not allowed to; some regain their manhood, such as unstable abused informant Porter. Alma, of course, embraces daughter and granddaughters.

This concrete legal battle has been little known until now. Tone, character and buildup, however, are such that the outcome does not come as any surprise. What is puzzling, is why legal minds might have so long overlooked an obvious key to proving racist intent.

Noting in written titles that this is the tip of a national iceberg, American Violet celebrates the unlikely courage of individuals on the first steps of a long road. The film should please general audiences even though it is way too sanitized to show the real dirt, sweat and blood of that journey.

(Released by Samuel L. Goldwyn Films and rated "PG-13" for thematic material, violence, drug references and language.) 

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