Friday, October 30, 2009

The Tim Disney/Bill Haney AMERICAN VIOLET: shades of Stanley Kramer

A film as well-done and as important -- dealing as it does with race and justice in America (What? You've tuned out already?) -- as AMERICAN VIOLET ought to have created, if not a major surge, at least a minor blip at the box-office. That it disappeared so quickly with hardly a trace is indicative of both the plethora of small independent films currently washing over us and the "taint" of good intentions attached to a film like this one. Oh-oh: it's got an agenda. Well, yes -- rightly so.

The movie may bring to mind those of Stanley Kramer, that late and sometimes great producer/director and fighter for justice, who gave us films like The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Though Kramer is probably better remembered for his producing than for his directing (he had a rather heavy hand), his heart and mind were in the right place. As are those of the filmmakers of this new "Kramer" model (director Tim Disney is shown above, left). Best of all, they have a lighter, more adept hand concerning things like exposition, moralizing and the complex human character.

American Violet (a title change to something a tad more immediate and meaningful might have helped matters at the box-office) tells the based-on-life story of Regina Kelly (above, left, with screen-
writer Bill Haney), a young mother of four children who gets wrongfully caught up in a project-wide drug raid by the Feds and local officials. Her options appear to be "taking a plea," which would get her out of jail but deprive her of many important needs (her government-subsidized residence, for one), or pleading not guilty (a slam dunk into the permanent slammer, given the racist D.A. and police department). This girl is not a pure flower of virtue -- she's got a passel of unpaid parking tickets and her kids have several different fathers -- but she's decent and strong and most impor-
tantly has never had anything to do with drugs, as user or pusher.

The actress who plays Kelly (her movie character is now called Dee Roberts), newcomer Nicole Beharie (at left), is a find: as beautiful as she is believable, with the kind of strength necessary to bring this role home. She's abetted well by Alfre Woodard (below, left), who plays her mom, a woman who clearly has raised her daughter correctly but now lacks the strength (and any belief in her efficacy of her government) to see her through this ordeal. Xzibit (below, right, whose name it has taken TrustMovies about a year to figure out how to pronounce: This visual Ebonics will drive me bonkers) essays the role of Darrell, Dee's most recent man and father of at least one of her kids). He's very, very good: a fine combination of menace, caring, and strength, all sadly misused.

As often happens in movies like this, it's the good guys from the white over-class who end up helping the put-upon members of the underclass. Over the decades, this sort of thing has become increasingly tricky and problematic, but I'm pleased to report that Ameri-
can Violet
handles it about as well as possible, given its particular situation. The filmmakers and actors see to it that their white heroes -- played with their usual "smarts" and gravitas by Will Patton (seen at bottom, right, with Ms Woodard) and Tim Blake Nelson (shown below) -- demonstrate their understanding of how difficult it is for their black counterparts to stand up and be counted: what these people can lose in the process is made very plain. Even the villain, the town's D.A. (played well by Michael O'Keefe, shown above), is made both human and very nasty.

We need more movies like American Violet, which made its DVDebut a couple of weeks ago. Avoiding simple melodrama and wise about the web of racism, power and the criminal justice system, as well as the people in and out of power who become enmeshed in it and the compromises -- some necessary, others not -- that they must make, this movie should stand well the test of time. One caveat: I was aware from time to time of the musical score, which though low-key, still seemed obtrusive, taking the movie unnecessarily into further melodrama and cliche. I wonder if it might have made a better film with no musical score whatsoever. While this would not have quali-
fied it for "mainstream" status, since it never achieved anything close to that, this might have improved the movie noticeably.

The DVD, released via Image Entertainment, can be purchased on Amazon and rented via Netflix, Blockbuster or your local independent video outlet -- two or three of which may still remain open around the country.

(Photos are from the film itself,
except for that of Tim Disney by John Shearer,
© and courtesy of,
and Regina Kelly and Bill Haney by Patrick McDonald,
courtesy of

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