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IN SHORT: First to place on our best of the year list. [Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, drug references and language. 103 minutes]
All we can tell you about Texas, aside that our dad lives across the NM border from El Paso, is that this warning was passed from one college student to another, back in the 1970s: "Stay clean in Texas or stay the hell out." That you could get 30 years hard jail time for possession of a joint, was legend. American Violet, in which a poor, single mother of four is busted by Lone Star State cops for selling drugs in a school zone -- a totally trumped up charge -- uses this rep of the cops and runs with it.
That's not fair. The story isn't made up. The story is one of a system that, at a time no more than a decade or two past, is so wide open to misuse that anyone without a lawyer is screwed. Anyone with a court appointed lawyer is even worse off. So, "Welcome to Texas justice," Ms. Dee Roberts. Single mother of four (by three different men, two of 'em in jail). Dee works as a waitress. Lives in public housing. Has mom Alma Roberts (Alfre Woodard) look after the kids even as her last husband, Darrell Hughes (Xzibit ) does his best to take his part and parcel away. Darrell, btw, is a violent drunk shacked up with a drug abusing subhuman; neither are afraid to abuse the System whenever possible. When the local cops come sweeping down on the Projects, with a list of "known" drug dealers in hand, Dee is swept up and locked away.
Why her name is on the list is the one part of the story that we won't give away. Simply put, DA Calvin Beckett (Michael O'Keefe), a hard law 'n' order man, uses these busts to build his reputation. For most of the poor, pleading guilty means they don't do time and the DA gets another notch on his belt.
It also means, though, that they lose their right to housing, food stamps, voting, any government aid and so on. It's a great way for the local government to balance a budget, come to think of it. It works well because, as Dee's mom insists, that's just the way it is.
For Dee, who has walked the line since a minor bust at age 16, pleading guilty means more than "the way it is." Aside from the fact of her innocence, it means that Darrell gets the upper hand in the ongoing battle for the kidlets. And Dee screams hard and loud for any one to hear her, once bail is set at an unattainable $70,000. No one in her community has that kind of money. All Dee has is a spotless churchgoing record. So the good Reverend Sanders (Charles S. Dutton) makes a call to a university professor friend who makes an appeal those friendly New York lawyers at the ACLU, mainly a Jewish guy called David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) and a black guy called Byron Hill (Malcolm Barrett) and a whole different kind of lawsuit unfolds.
The ACLU hires local lawyer Sam Conroy (Will Patton) as their mouthpiece and the merry band moves forward with the idea that arresting poor people based on the idea that "if they're poor they must be doing something that'll make them guilty for something" is racist.
We're trying too hard to avoid giving anything away so we'll just acknowledge an absolutely fabulous performance by Nicole Beharie in a great film about unjust accusation and the impossible fight to overcome. Only once did we sense a glitch in the script -- it's a very minor technical matter about who gets deposed and why -- but going into that here is going to ruin the third act surprise and we won't do that.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to American Violet, he would have paid . . .
Ignore the race lines. See this film.
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