The message comes before the medium in Tim Disney’s American Violet, a fact-based melodrama that tackles the issue of institutional racism with maximum TV-movie earnestness. Though it never surprises, much less transcends, in exposing the vile underbelly of Texas justice, the film is more affecting than it ought to be, thanks to a loaded cast that includes Alfre Woodard, Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton, Charles Dutton, and the rapper and sometime actor Xzibit. Beyond his extensive Rolodex—he’s Walt’s grandnephew and son of former Walt Disney Company executive Roy—Disney hasn’t advanced much as a director since his abysmal 2000 monastery drama A Question Of Faith, but he keeps the pot boiling under a true story that, at a minimum, succeeds in stoking righteous liberal outrage.
Opening during the Bush vs. Gore drama of November 2000—an analogous bit of dubious justice that Disney can’t resist hammering home—American Violet stars newcomer Nicole Beharie as a small-town Texas waitress and single mother railroaded by the system. During a drug sweep of her all-black housing project, the local police bring in Beharie and dozens of others on trumped-up charges. With her mother (Alfre Woodard) left to look after her three children, Beharie faces a difficult choice: free herself by accepting 10 years’ probation on a plea bargain, or allow the case to go to court, which could have much costlier consequences. Backed by an ACLU lawyer (Nelson) and a local attorney known for his integrity and connections (Patton), Beharie attempts to prove that the drug charges are not just false, but racially motivated.
American Violet makes a compelling argument for how racism within local police and justice departments can thrive due to a system that awards government dollars based on stats that are easily juked. The use of plea bargains is particularly insidious, because the accused typically don’t have the money to make bail or mount a vigorous defense, so even the innocent are willing to plead guilty just to secure their freedom. It’s hard not to get swept up by the film’s progressive zeal, but Disney doesn’t allow for much grey area: Beharie and her lawyers are scrappy underdogs fighting for what is good and right, and the D.A. and his cronies are sniveling villains. The whole truth could probably withstand a little nuance.