Uncommon Productions, the same company that brought us the 2007 Gabriel Award-winning documentary about dispossessed Haitians on Dominican sugar plantations, The Price of Sugar, has released a dramatic feature based on true events that took place in 2000-2001: American Violet.
American Violet is the story of Dee Roberts (played by an amazing newcomer, Nichole Beharie), a 24-year old single mom living in city projects of fictitious Melody, TX. She has four girls by three different fathers, and as events turn out, this informtion will be used by the local district attorney (Michael O’Keefe) to humiliate her as she faces false – and trumpted up – drug charges.
It is late in the year 2000. Nationally, the ballots are being counted in the presidential race that is finally decided by the Supreme Court. Cable news dones on the in the background and life “as usual” goes on in Melody. Locally, the county task force ”attacks” the projects where Dee lives one morning “with military precision”. They sweep up a large number of people, all African Americans, according to a list of names. Dee has been accused by a single informant – in Texas, at the time, it only took one informant for an indictment - and is advised, encouraged even, to plead guilty. As a convicted felon she would lose her housing, the right to vote, and any assistance provided by the government. Dee refuses. The ACLU wants to use her as a plaintiff in a case that challenges the district attorney. Dee agrees.
It emerges that the more drug convictions (by plea or a guilty verdict) a district attorney gets, the more money the federal government gives to the state (and country).
This is a social justice drama of the first order that makes me wonder if this is the USA or apartheid South Africa. The US has the highest prison population in the world and Texas has the most prisoners in the US. At the end of the film a sentence appears: there are 2.3 million prisoners in the US and 85% of them took a plea bargain.
The film does not over-play the story that took place in a little town or “city” most of us have never heard of Hearne, TX (Melody in the film). It is a local story that can speak to a wide audience because the injustice of a legal system that is so manipulated, the racism so stark and unquestioned, and the victims of the system so innocent, that it is heart-breaking. Like Richard Attenborough’s brilliant film about Steve Biko, Cry Freedom, American Violet demands our attention and calls for a personal response.
American Violetis a splash of beauty in a hard world.
The film was directed by Tim Disney (the son of Roy Disney). Tim was the executive producer for The Price of Sugar.
For an excellent review of the film, with comments by writer Bill Haney, see America Violet: Los Angeles Times Review.
The films website is America Violet.