Mixing political messages with movies is risky. Basing a film on pressing contemporary issues can earn it a bounty of critical bonus points and drive up its popularity—think of the wave of support that followed the release of Milk last year. While politics cannot and should not be ignored in cinema, the conviction necessary to push a political agenda always threatens to overwhelm the film, reducing it to a public service announcement.
This seems to be precisely the case with Tim Disney’s American Violet. Although the issues of institutional racism and legal justice that it engages with are undoubtedly pressing, the film’s plot rarely rises above the simplicity of a bullet-pointed political message.
Following the true story of a legal battle charged with racial tension, American Violet seeks to document the corruption in a Texas county’s criminal justice system. After a massive drug raid on a housing project, police arrest Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a single mother of four, and accuse her of selling drugs. Shocked and helpless in the face of such serious and unfounded charges, Roberts can only wait in jail while the district attorney, Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe), builds his case against her. All the while, she is encouraged by those around her to give an expedient plea bargain so that she can return to her children and avoid a harsh prison sentence. However, Roberts remains defiant and prepares to defend herself against the relentless prosecution.
Help soon arrives in the form of an ACLU lawyer, David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson), who seeks to use Roberts’ case as a means to expose the racist agenda of the district attorney’s office. Cohen believes that law enforcement officials throughout the country, such as Beckett, use drug laws as a justification for targeting African-American communities with police raids. By this point in the film, its political message is abundantly clear: the criminal justice system often seeks to produce criminals rather than serve justice. One of the criticisms frequently voiced against Beckett is that his agenda does not create any meaningful change in reforming the drug business, but only produces an illusion of security by arresting alleged drug dealers and building cases against them, regardless of whether they are guilty or not. The film implies that a general complacency with these injustices for the sake of the appearance of security allows for the persecution of minority groups.
However, once you begin to think about the implications of the film’s message, its fatal flaw becomes painfully clear: the political ideas of the film are far more moving than the film itself. At one point about halfway through the film, Cohen tells Roberts that over 90 percent of prison convictions are the result of plea bargains. At first, I was deeply affected by the statistic, and then I was surprised by the realization that this statistic was more poignant than the events depicted in the film.
For me, this realization suggests that the film would have probably functioned better as a documentary than as a drama. Freedom from a dramatic structure and a deeper exploration of the facts could have allowed the film to explore the specifics of Dee Roberts’s story and the nuances of her legal battle to a greater extent, giving the audience a better understanding of the total situation. This would allow its political messages and implications to move to the forefront of the film, where they belong.