American Violet Movie Review
In American Violet, Nicole Beharie makes a strong debut as Dee Roberts, an African-American single mother of four who finds her life turned upside down when she is falsely arrested for selling crack cocaine. After the chief D.A. offers her a plea deal in exchange for no jail time - versus a long, expensive court battle in which she could face years in prison away from her children, she becomes aware of a plot that involves racism and manipulation of the U.S. legal system.
Based on a true story, American Violet is essentially a direct-to-DVD release, having earned just over half a million dollars during its theatrical run earlier in 2009. Most movies go straight to DVD for a reason, but every once in a while one slips through the cracks. American Violet is one of those films. Why Samuel Goldwyn chose to sit on this one is anyone's guess.
Beharie is excellent in the lead, delivering an emotional, heartfelt performance. She's supported by a very good and more experienced supporting cast that includes Will Patton, Alfre Woodard, Michael O'Keefe and Tim Blake Nelson. O'Keefe does a particularly good job playing the film's villain.
The movie works on account of its story, which tackles the issue of racism in the legal system. The plot drives the film more so than anything else, and this works both for and against it. American Violet is succinct and to-the-point; it moves along at a fast clip, presenting the plot points, turns and developments in an engaging and entertaining way. And yet, when you compare it to the great legal films of the last several decades, it feels small and insignificant, not because of what it's about but because of what it's missing. The characters are good but not particularly developed; what drives them and keeps them up at night is never explored. How Dee is affected by her circumstances are shown but never felt. American Violet is an engaging film, but not a gripping one. It lacks the emotional drama necessary to take it to the next level.
Nonetheless, the movie's still worth seeing; it just isn't award caliber. American Violet is remarkable for the story it presents and the actress it introduces - Nicole Beharie. Recommended.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.