"American Violet" is an earnest muckraker about the justice system that won't win points for style, but wins plenty for substance.
It exposes the way unscrupulous prosecutors use frightened defendents and plea bargains to spiff up their drug-conviction records. The losers in many cases are poor and African American, adding a layer of racism that actually feeds the cycle - the fact-based "American Violet" focuses on a Texas prosecutor (played by Miles O'Keefe) who uses publicized drug sweeps in black neighborhoods to win re-election in a mostly white district.
"American Violet" begins with a housing project raid, one that gathers up both the guilty and the innocent. Prosecutors and colluding public defenders don't much care about the difference - they coerce detainees to accept plea bargains or lose food stamps, child custody, health care, etc.
The movie is lucid and persuasive on a question that probably baffles many people: Why would anyone plead guilty to a crime they didn't commit?
"American Violet" shows how people who have no resources, who depend on state and federal benefits are vulnerable to such pressure - a woman who lives alone in subsidized housing must take the plea or else. She literally has nowhere to go.
In fact, the movie shows just how much grit and nerve it takes for an innocent person to fight any system when it threatens to take your children. The hero of the piece is Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a feisty mother of three who pushes back when the district attorney does just that.
When the D.A.'s egregious actions catch the attention of the ACLU, the organization looks for a model defendent (tough, unquestionably innocent) willing to function as the poster girl for wrongful prosecution.
Dee is that woman, and newcomer Beharie is the right actress - she gets to Dee's fiery independence without making a big show of it, and, as it happens, she's very easy on the eyes.
Other roles are filled out nicely by seasoned pros - Tim Blake Nelson as the ACLU outsider who knows he can't win without local counsel (Will Patton). Alfre Woodard has a key role as Dee's mom - she loves her daughter but represents a generation that accepts the plea-bargains as status quo.
"American Violet" adheres relentlessy to a man-vs-system formula. To its detriment, some may feel. The movie is frequently obvious, rarely subtle, but there are some great moments. Case in point: Dee sees early on that her eldest daughter does not believe she is innocent, and decides to fight the powerful D.A. to end this generational cycle of disappointment and dissillusion.
Here, for once, is a movie about something. Something real. *