In 2000, sociopolitically minded director Tim Disney heard a story on NPR about an African American woman in a small Texas town arrested under the false accusation of selling drugs and then bullied into making an impossible choice: either confess and go free (but with a felony on her record), or refuse to confess and be sentenced to 16 to 25 years in prison. Disney, along with frequent collaborator Bill Haney, considered the idea of making a documentary (their 2007 documentary The Price of Sugar also deals with social injustice, detailing the exploitation of Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic), but, perhaps misguidedly, decided a narrative would work better, since the events were already in the past.
Unfortunately, the unforced intensity and raw emotion that often comes naturally or even serendipitously in a documentary with a political agenda can prove difficult to match in narrative film, and Disney’s attempts to ramp up emotional impact here result in clunky conventions and mundane metaphors. American Violet begins with a scene of domestic routine wherein Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a young mother, tends to her four children and her delicate potted violet. Later, when morale is low and the future looks bleak, the flower appears to be dead, but when we see it one last time at film’s end, we know that Dee was right to keep it, for she has nursed it back to its initial thriving state. The symbol is perfunctory, and the same is true of American Violet, which walks a fine line between moving and maudlin, with the filmmakers only occasionally showing enough restraint and good judgment to yield genuinely heartfelt results.
Click here to read the rest of Sarah Silver’s review of American Violet.