Allowing one of the Walt Disney clan to make a “based on a real story” film virtually guarantees that the result will share the same undemanding, two-dimensional qualities of something like The Brave Little Toaster. Now add in a dose of racial guilt, Oscar baiting, and unironic melodrama and you’ll have something that looks a lot like American Violet.
The film follows the trials and tribulations of Dee Roberts, a black woman in the South who is arrested on false charges during a drug raid. It’s a shame, really, because all Dee wants to do is water her violets—the film’s namesake—and find her American Dream. Her paper-thin character is always a paragon of motherly virtue, only made palatable by Nicole Beharie’s terrific performance. As she is dragged through the horrors of jail time, custody battles, and the social consequences of criminal conviction, Dee manages to remain ever-faithful and unwavering, dutifully filling the shoes of martyrdom.
When hope seems lost, along comes Will Patton as Sam Conroy, a bookish ACLU lawyer (and obvious stand-in for director Tim Disney) to fight on Dee’s behalf. He brings along Byron White, an African-American lawyer who is literally silent for most of the film, reduced to communicating with raised eyebrows and wide-eyed expressions. He exists only as a pawn in their battle, his blackness becoming a weapon in their fight against Calvin Beckett, the crooked DA who authorized the raids. Played by Michael O’Keefe, Beckett is the villain of the story and is correspondingly reduced to the same two-dimensionality as the heroine. His wickedness is unmitigated by any humanity, just as Dee’s virtue is unblemished by any dishonourable instincts.
Instead of allowing the audience to observe and draw out whatever moral and political message is there, American Violet forces every point, making each flat and wooden. What was obviously a well-intentioned attempt to address the problem of racism within the justice system is ruined by this overemphasis. The film’s simple dichotomy of good and evil fails to offer any real critique and glosses over whatever subtleties and truths would raise the story above its rote, made-for-tv feel. American Violet is ultimately a botched experiment, a challenge to social problems that is undermined by its heavy-handed insistence on a reductive reality.