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MOVIE REVIEW

American Violet

Simple case of going from wronged to righteous

Nicole Beharie (left) and Alfe Woodward in ''American Violet.'' Nicole Beharie (left) and Alfe Woodward in ''American Violet.'' (Scott Saltzman/Samuel Goldwyn Films)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 1, 2009
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It's always something in "American Violet," a pat social drama about the scourges of racism and classism in the Texas legal system.

The material comes from the facts of a case involving a crooked district attorney and the ACLU lawyers who go after his systematic targeting of poor blacks in trumped-up drug raids. But the film has the crusading righteousness of "Erin Brockovich," the same "gotcha" game plan that made Jack Nicholson self-detonate in "A Few Good Men," and the lady-triumphs-over-adversity finale of a Lifetime Original. In other words, "American Violet" feels less like life and unreasonably more like the movies.

Written by Bill Haney and directed by Tim Disney, the film focuses on Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a young waitress who can't catch a break. She's arrested at her diner job and jailed. Her alleged crime: drug dealing in a school zone. She says she's innocent and would rather stay locked up than accept a guilty plea that would put her back home with her four young daughters but cost all her government assistance.

After 21 days, Dee's mother (Alfre Woodard) posts bail. And soon Dee is fighting to get two of the girls back from her baby daddy and his drugged-out, accused-child-molester girlfriend and the district attorney who had Dee and dozens of others locked up in random public-housing raids. She allows a local attorney (Will Patton) and two ACLU lawyers sent to Texas (Tim Blake Nelson, Malcolm Barrett) to make her the plaintiff in a suit against the corrupt district attorney (Michael O'Keefe).

The film supplies us with dismaying statistics about the number of people who accept pleas after being arrested for bogus charges gained from a single unreliable informant. (Federal aid to the D.A.'s office is tied to conviction rates, and the intimidation tactics tend to keep black victims too disenfranchised to vote the D.A. out.) That awareness can be unsettling whenever, say, the cops slap handcuffs on a character.

The movie is set during the 2000 presidential election, when Texas's George W. Bush was the GOP nominee. But the old TV clips are gratuitous, since they don't have any thematic bearing on Dee's case. They're a superficial element of a story incapable of going far beneath its surfaces.

Dee is good. The D.A. is evil. And no one on either side is spared a high-and-mighty moment, except maybe the ever-solid Anthony Mackie in a small part as Dee's informant. Woodard's performance is one long "Lord have mercy." But Beharie has natural grace, snap, and excellent instinct. She hasn't been in many movies, but her face could tell this story without all the music and the exposition. By underplaying everything, she gets a lot done.

Beharie is so good that she makes the screenwriting look dim. One of the ACLU guys scolds Dee for going off on her ex, but why is he yelling at her to stay out of trouble? He needs to chastise the script for throwing so much trouble her way.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

AMERICAN VIOLET Directed by: Tim Disney

Written by: Bill Haney

Starring: Nicole Beharie, Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton, Michael O'Keefe, Charles S. Dutton, and Alfre Woodard

At: Boston Common, Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 93 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (violence, drug references, and language)