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.
Walking past the Martin Art Gallery this month, one might get the impression that behind those doors rests an entire town. Sounds force themselves past their exhibit chains; sounds that could be marching bands or street symphonies. Upon entry, the source of the noise reveals itself: Amze Emmons’ Hutung Sunrise, a multimedia piece that looks something like a gypsy wagon crossed with a plastic forest. The shelter is held up with bamboo and covered by a leaf-patterned tarp. The wagon is presumably drawn by the bicycle attached to its front with light-festooned bamboo; this symbol of movement is ironically offset by the doormat adjacent to the wagon’s rear entrance. This fluid conflation and opposition of movement/stillness, as well as that of private/public space characterizes the exhibit Safety Architecture, which will be housed in the gallery until November 15.
The pieces in the exhibit encompass a wide variety of mediums, including audio/visual, plastic, wood, and gouache. Mario Marzan’s Transient Structures looks at first glance like a child’s creation. Miniature houses line the walls and the floor, their plasticity frank in its artifice. One of the wall-bound dwellings pumps dialogue into the gallery through a speaker. The conversation is in Spanish and centres on daily life; the sounds of washing dishes and distraught children hums in the background. A strange occurrence: midway through the conversation, the audio skips and the narrative is thus fragmented, creating a fissure in the seeming live reality of the recording. The presence of surveillance seeps out into consciousness, and the viewer is thus implicated in the process. Some of Marzan’s other structures feature video without sound; one in particular reveals a young boy sitting in a plastic wagon, handle in hand, while a dog explores the space behind him. The shot is constant, steady, and framed by a living room setting with a window, as though he were in the backyard. The viewer’s voyeurism comes into play once again. Marzan has furnished the dwellings with both domestic objects constructed to scale and real household items such as empty spools and eyedroppers. Some of the houses are connected by spiralling wires enshrined in plastic coating. Many of the houses also feature ladders constructed out of balsam wood, descending optimistically into nothingness, a symbol also present in Micha Bonnstein’s Rescue Cloud.
The juxtaposition of miniature couches with life-size tweezers defamiliarizes Marzan’s space. Hutung Sunrise also employs defamiliarization, but does so with the result of producing a more welcoming sensation. An observer can step on the doormat and into the stationary shelter itself, sitting on one of two plastic stools. A projector exposes us to the source of light and sound, and one eventually realizes that the sound has no connection to the images. The disjoint may momentarily suspend one’s cognitive ability, as does the projection of images onto a textured surface that impedes clear perception. The result of this break from convention is a sense of newfound freedom.
Overall, the exhibit revels in the small transgressions and broken ideologies of space and cultural construction.
Safety Architecture consists of more than the three aforementioned pieces; we here at [c i n] encourage you to check it out for yourselves.