American Violet was made by documentary filmmakers and it is based on true stories, but it's not a documentary. Still, the reality of the tale is chilling—the war on drugs has gone awry and targeted some of society's most vulnerable people, people like Dee Roberts.

Dee (a composite character based mostly on Regina Kelly) was a poor young mother of four young children living in a small Texas town in 2000. She was working her shift in the local diner when agents from a drug task force swooped in and arrested her on charges of selling drugs in a school zone.

Nicole Beharie as Dee Roberts

Nicole Beharie as Dee Roberts

In a recent interview with CT Movies, Kelly said that for most of her life the drug task force had been conducting high-profile raids on the housing project where she lived. "But I felt like, 'Well, if you don't put yourself in that predicament [associate with drugs], you won't get in trouble,'" she said. But her arrest opened her eyes.

Working at the behest of a crooked DA (in this case Calvin Beckett, played by Michael O'Keefe), the police used military-style tactics to intimidate poor, African-American residents of housing projects, arresting and indicting people based on the word of one dubious informant. (Yes, Texas law at the time allowed for an indictment based on the word of one informant.) Once indicted and with no money to hire competent representation, the pressure to take a plea bargain was intense. And the more people that pled guilty—the more "convictions" he had—the more money the DA was given from the federal government to fight his own war on drugs. Those without resources to fight back—mostly poor minorities—became the casualties of the war.

Played with southern sass by newcomer Nicole Beharie, Dee assumes her own arrest must be for several outstanding parking tickets. She's shocked when the charges are leveled in court and she's put back in her cramped cell because bail is set prohibitively high. With Dee in jail, her abusive ex-boyfriend (Darrell, played by rap star Xzibit) promptly tries to repossess the two of Dee's daughters he fathered, putting both of the girls in clear danger. If she's convicted of this crime (which her public defender almost assures her will happen if she fights the charges), she'll be locked away from her girls for more than ten years. But if she pleads guilty, she can be out on probation tomorrow. Dee's own mother (Alma, played by Alfre Woodard) suggests that taking a plea is the right choice to make for her family.

Dee and her mother (Alfre Woodard) share a moment

Dee and her mother (Alfre Woodard) share a moment

But Dee must also weigh the fact that convicted felons lose federal benefits like food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, housing subsidies and Pell grants. In many states they also lose the right to vote. Dee is already struggling to make ends meet, and the prospects for her and her family seem especially bleak if she becomes a convicted felon.

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One more vital factor: She's innocent. So she decides to fight.

Dee finds support in the counsel of her pastor. Played by Charles Dutton, Reverend Sanders recognizes the unfair targeting of his local black community and calls in legal experts from Baylor and the ACLU to give advice. Hoping to change the laws that let people like DA Beckett run roughshod over the disenfranchised, the ACLU decides to represent Dee.

In many ways, the story of American Violet is familiar. It's a David and Goliath tale. But the details are nonetheless shocking. Scriptwriter Bill Haney has pointed out that in the 40 years since the war on drugs was declared by Richard Nixon, the U.S. prison population has multiplied twelve times—from 200,000 to 2.3 million. The United States holds twice as many prisoners as China, a country with four times the population. And more than 90 percent of these convicts accepted a plea bargain.

Charles S. Dutton as Reverend Sanders

Charles S. Dutton as Reverend Sanders

Haney is clearly outraged by the statistics. And the tension in the film's opening scenes—the juxtaposition of SWAT teams loading weapons and the unsuspecting Dee getting her family ready for the day and then serving coffee to her customers—reflects a tension he surely felt in writing the script. Haney attempts to attack the issue on both a policy and a personal level. And at times the story seems almost too earnest for its own good—grinding through the story in a linear fashion that makes the narrative seem slow in sections.

This attention to policy and detail perhaps betrays the background the filmmakers have in documentaries. One can imagine that freed from the need to pack in so many of the facts, more time might have been spent on the drama at the personal level. And this is a criticism only because the movie is loaded with so many interesting personal and social and cultural implications that seem to only be brushed.

And yet, American Violet's temptation to drag under the weight of its own righteousness is nonetheless buoyed by the sheer courage of Dee and the local lawyers who decide to assist in her case. This a movie that should be watched and discussed with friends and fellow Christians invested in being agents of justice in the world. It raises serious questions about a system that does not protect those most vulnerable to abuse—the poor. The experience of being innocent and charged with a crime opened the eyes of Regina Kelly. And by allowing Haney and others to tell her story through Dee Roberts and American Violet, our eyes can also be opened. 

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. If you were in Dee's shoes, would you have fought the charges or taken a plea bargain? Why or why not?

  2. Did you know that the U.S. has more than twice as many people in prison as China, a country with four times our population? What, if anything, does this statistic say about our justice system?

  3. Do Christians have any special reason to be concerned about cases like Dee Robert's case?

  4. What sort of defense could be given for the actions of the DA in this case? What should Christians think about being "tough on crime"? What, if any, sacrifices do we need to be willing to make to protect ourselves from crime?

(Editor's note: Our friends at Heartland Truly Moving Pictures have put together a full discussion guide on this film.)

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

American Violet is rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, drug references and language. Most disturbing is the threat of child abuse. There are also scenes of violence during drug raids and a couple of domestic disturbances—nothing graphic, but jarring nonetheless. Racial tension leads to strong language. And, for obvious reasons, there is reference to drug use.

What other Christian critics are saying:
  1. Plugged In
  2. Crosswalk
  3. Catholic News Service
  4. Past the Popcorn

American Violet
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for thematic material, violence, drug references and language)
Directed By
Tim Disney
Run Time
1 hour 43 minutes
Nicole Beharie, Will Patton, Alfre Woodard
Theatre Release
April 17, 2009 by Samuel Goldwyn Films
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