Friday, October 16, 2009

Home Video: American Violet

American Violet
Directed by Tim Disney
Released April 17, 2009 / DVD October 13, 2009

There are many films out there about overcoming prejudice. Some recent entries like “North Country” and “Milk” have been moving and awe-inspiring, while others like “The Great Debaters” just lose most of the magic in the transition from real-life inspiration to big-screen adaptation. “American Violet” falls into the latter category, though it’s not as if it’s incredibly corny or wrought with agonizingly clichéd scenes of predictable triumphant success. Tim Disney’s new film, by contrast, just never quite takes off or makes its characters three-dimensional enough to illicit sympathy. The grander story is decently moving, sure, but not this particular focus.

In “American Violet,” a family is ripped apart by a shocking accusation and subsequent arrest which lands struggling single mother Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie) in jail. The question of whether she should accept a guilty plea in order to prevent possibly extended jail time despite her own knowledge of her innocence brings into question the legitimacy of that kind of trick by district attorneys and the racial discrimination that lands a disproportionate ration of people of color in that situation. It’s a worthy topic for a film, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before, and it doesn’t present any particularly compelling distinguishing factors that single it out as a worthwhile film project.

The cast is littered with actors who have delivered impressive performances before, but unfortunately this is hardly their best work. Alfre Woodard, Tim Blake Nelson, and Will Patton all fill roles they’re used to playing: Woodard as the headstrong, hard-working matriarch; Nelson as the bespectacled, slightly nebbish out-of-towner; and Patton as the hard-headed, silent do-gooder who seems reluctant to help at first but ultimately comes through. All three have given better performances in similar roles elsewhere, and Patton seems to have exhausted this part in a far superior race relations movie, “Remember the Titans.” Michael O’Keefe makes an intimidating villain, and while star Nicole Beharie’s breakthrough has been overstated by many, she does a decent job carrying the film, but nothing more.

“American Violet” is a simple example of what happens when an intriguing historical instance is presented as the basis for a film, and the mere fact that those events, in some form, actually transpired, seems enough of a reason for it to be made. When a film stands on nothing but inspirational events and contains mediocre performances and a standard script, it doesn’t have much hope of separating itself from dozens of other similar, more polished projects. Often, viewers tend to get wrapped up in the theatricality of the events behind the film and praise it for merits which really aren’t its own.


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