American Violet

John ArmstrongFilm, Race and Racism

Americanviolet_smallposter American Violet is one of those films I truly wish every Christian I know would see. It reveals the deep seated impact of racism on black America and shatters the typically conservative stereotype that the problem is all but over. The film, released in April of 2009 to a limited number of screens in apparently small towns, is based on the true story of Dee Roberts, a 24 year-old African-American single mother of four living in the small Texas town of Melody (which is the fictitious film name for the town of Hearne). Dee is dragged away from work one day in handcuffs, and dumped in the women's county prison for twenty-one days before her bail can be met. The local district attorney leads an extensive drug bust, sweeping her housing project with military precision. Dee soon discovers that she has been charged as a drug dealer, crack-cocaine. Even though she has no prior drug record, and no drugs were found on her in the raid, she is offered an all too typical choice: plead guilty and receive a ten-years suspended sentence and go home as a convicted felon or remain in prison, jeopardizing custody of her four kids and risking a long prison sentence, perhaps as long as 16-25 years. She chooses to fight the unyielding criminal justice system, risking everything in a battle that forever changed her life and the Texas justice system. I will not spoil the ending or the consequences of this ordeal but it is a wonderful story with a mostly positive ending. The response of the community to their DA underscores just how deep-seated the racism is when you see the closing commentary of the film. Again, seeing is really believing in this instance. Just see the film. The San Francisco Chronicle called this “An ideal movie for an ideal time.” Entertainment Weekly says, “[A] powerful performance by newcomer Nicole Beharie,” giving the film a B+ rating.

Dee (Nicole Beharie) is truly superb in every way. She is a tough lady with the support of a tough mother and a faithful pastor and African-American church that does not reject her because of her past sins. (She had four children, at least two out of wedlock and she clearly made a number of moral mistakes to get herself into the stress she lived in during 2000 when the story unfolds.) Her mother (Alfre Woodard) is the best known actress in the film and plays her motherly role superbly, struggling with supporting her daughter and the four young kids while Dee battles the system.

The viewer is brought face-to-face with the ugly reality of racism in America in this film. The viewer is also brought face-to-face with the African-American church in a small town Texas context. As I watched the commentary (in words) roll at the end of the film I asked several burning questions:

How come there are 2.3 million people in our prisons and 90% are there without convictions but by plea-bargains? Is this justice in any meaningful sense of the term?

How can the white churches in places like Melody, Texas (and many other places not simply in the South) be so blind to their continuation of racial prejudice?

How much of the visceral hatred for President Obama is still rooted in racism? I oppose a number of the president’s policies, as readers no doubt know. I also believe a lot of the emotional response to him is influenced by race far more than many conservatives will admit.

If you want to see the impact racism still has upon our legal system American Violet is powerful and evocative resource. I found it compelling. It was one of the best films I've saw in 2009.