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Directed by Tim Disney
In Tim Disney’s American Violet
, a “based on a true story” film about a mother falsely accused of dealing drugs, there is no such thing as moral ambiguity. There’s no such thing as subtlety, either. If you’re one of the bad guys you’re going to be pretty bad — racist and inhumane, abusive politically and physically — and if you’re one of the good guys you’ll be equally good — courageously sacrificing for the good of all, righting wrongs past and present, etc. Would it surprise anyone to discover, then, that Tim Disney is the great-nephew of Walt Disney, inheriting, if not the innovative story-telling gene, at least the simplistic moral compass gene?
When Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie) is arrested, along with many others in her mostly black housing project community, she is given the choice of accepting a plea bargain (no prison time, but the stigma of being a convicted felon and the loss of her government-subsidized housing), or facing the possibility of a 25-year prison sentence (and losing those things anyway). Throughout the film, it’s noted that over 90% of indictments end in plea bargains, and seeing the over-crowded prison and the strong-arming local D.A., it’s no surprise why. Coming to her rescue is a coterie of lawyers, two from the ACLU and a local lawyer trying to make up for past misdeeds. When offering their services, they remind Dee that the decision to sue the District Attorney for racism has to be hers — she has to live with the consequences of an angry local government and the scorning of a resentful citizenry.
But meaningful moments like these are few and far between. Rather, American Violet
suffers from Disney’s inability to let visual storytelling ease the weight of the exposition. He includes all the requisite moments of personal anguish — Dee losing jobs because of pressure from the D.A., fighting with her ex-husband and his child-molesting girlfriend, and so on — but on screen just as on the page, these moments come across like items from a checklist, the morally blunt characterization a Cliffs Notes to “right and wrong.” Dee’s story, because it is not unique, is one worth telling. But it’s in the “how” of the telling that the meaningful drama is lost.
Opens April 17