SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER
by William Gooch
published April 24, 2009
now playing in select theaters
Hollywood likes to make movies where underdogs or the oppressed get
their rightful due—Erin Brockovich and To Kill a
Mockingbird come immediately to mind. If the downtrodden happen to be black folks, usually a great white knight rides in to save the day,
vanquishing the bigots and setting right the oppressive regime. In American Violet, there is no
white paternal figure to correct injustices; the savior is a single, young African American mother of four who victoriously stands up against
a racist criminal court system that is inflicting pain and misery upon her family and her community.
American Violet dramatizes the real-life struggles of Regina Kelly, a courageous black woman wrongfully caught up in a
public housing drug raid. American Violet also highlights America’s unjust war on drugs, which
has turned into an indictment on poor people of color. Writer Bill Haney has crafted an engaging script that not only details where the war
on drugs has gone askew, but also illuminates the lives of the people affected by a policy that has long outworn its usefulness. Although
American Violet has the patina of a documentary at times, Haney and Director Tim Disney have
succeeded in taking a volatile, controversial story and elevating this dramatization from an interesting example of America’s failed
30-year drug policy into a sympathetic tale of self-reliance and redemption. Haney and Disney also succeed in not creating stock characters. Public housing residents are not pathologized, and the bigoted, local
officials are given nuance and dimension.
As the fictionalized character Dee Roberts, newcomer Nicole Beharie
delivers a powerful, multilayered performance that belies her very young 24 years and lack of cinematic screen time. Whether fighting against
a system that refuses to acknowledge her humanity or struggling with her own sense of isolation and self-doubt, Beharie, by getting under the
skin of Dee Roberts, brilliantly humanizes a character that could have easily been weighted down with contrived virtues.
There are many poignant, wonderfully written scenes that detail Dee Roberts’ depth of character and conviction; however, one scene
in particular stands out. Midway through American Violet, ACLU attorney David Cohen (Tim Blake
Nelson) asks Dee how she continues to soldier on in spite of insurmountable odds. Roberts looks upward and replies, “I have some
help.” This empathic confession of personal faith, delivered so convincingly by Beharie,
synchronizes Dee’s faith with her dogged determination to see justice realized.
Alfre Woodard, as Dee’s well-meaning mother, and Charles L. Dutton, as her sympathetic pastor, both render powerful performances;
however, Michael O’Keefe, as the diabolical district attorney, delivers a performance that is a masterpiece in character analysis. Although
this corruptive figure is unredeemable, O’Keefe’s portrayal gives insight into the motivation behind the evil.
The worth of a nation should not be measured by military brilliance and an accelerated stock market, but by how justice and
equality is meted out to the least of us. Only then will justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. American Violet is a reminder that, in our country, the downtrodden still must often fight to gain
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
read the panel discussion with Nicole Beharie and Regina Hill
read the panel discussion with Tim Disney and Bill Haney