May 15, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'American Violet' -- GRADE: C+

Heroic 'American Violet' delves into injustice, racism

Alfre Woodard, left, and Nicole Beharie face discrimination and injustice in a Texas town in "American Violet." (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Bad old-fashioned racism lies at the heart of "American Violet," a well-played if too-familiar story of oppression and injustice.

Newcomer Nicole Beharie is Dee Roberts, a young, single black mother eking out a living and raising her small kids in a Texas town, who gets swept up in a drug bust.

It turns out someone she doesn't even know has fingered her as a drug dealer, and that's enough to put her in jail. A snake-eyed district attorney (Michael O'Keefe) is willing to let her go if she pleads guilty, but if she does she'll lose her government-subsidized apartment and have nowhere to live.

Just as importantly, though, Dee knows she's innocent. So she stays in jail while her mother (Alfre Woodard) raises bail money.

And when she gets out she faces problems common to those who've been imprisoned: She's lost her job and can't find another, the father of her kids makes a run for their custody and she's been branded as a drug dealer.

Luckily, the ACLU has sent a lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) to investigate the D.A.'s drug sweep program, and he enlists the aid of a local attorney (Will Patton). Together, they convince Dee to stand up to the system.

Based on a true story, "Violet" suffers from a lack of personal context (how did Dee end up with all those kids?) and a reliance on a one-dimensional racist stereotype (true though it may be) in the O'Keefe character. And director Tim Disney does not work in subtle ways.

But it's also a gut-level reminder of how a good system can be twisted and a portrait of a common person forced by ugly circumstance to become heroic. "American Violet" may not be a thing of beauty, but it gets the job done.

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