Just when you think it’s safe to call yourself a Texan comes another case of such brutish bigotry you wonder if maybe Governor Rick Perry was right to suggest this former republic might not belong in the United States of America. In July 1999, relying on a single notoriously unreliable informant, authorities in Tulia rounded up 46 citizens on specious charges of drug-dealing. Forty of them were African-American, about 15 percent of the Panhandle town’s black population. Except that the perpetrators wore badges, it was a race riot. Though all charges were eventually dismissed, coerced plea bargains and unwarranted prison sentences blighted lives.
American Violet dramatizes the Tulia scandal. Set in fictional Melody, Texas (but filmed in New Orleans), it focuses on Dee Roberts (Beharie), who lives in the public housing that District Attorney Calvin Beckett (O’Keefe), up for re-election and eager to pad his résumé, targets in a raid. The opening sequence, in which Roberts, a single mother, prepares breakfast for her four daughters, ages two to eight, before going off to serve breakfast at the diner where she works, immediately establishes sympathy, as does the spitefulness of her former husband. Arrested and threatened otherwise with 16-25 years in prison, Roberts is urged to plead guilty to crimes she did not commit. An outsider, ACLU attorney David Cohen (Nelson), persuades her to resist. Teaming with local lawyer Sam Conroy (Patton), a good ol’ boy who works up the gumption to tackle the establishment, they fight city hall — and win.
The film holds no surprises, and Beckett is a racist so vile even his daughter despises him. The pleasure in viewing comes from fine performances and the satisfaction of seeing justice restored — though, as in real life, the despicable DA triumphed at the polls.
First broken in a Texas Observer exposé, the story was told in Tulia, Texas, a documentary that aired on PBS in February. And another feature, Tulia, directed by John Singleton and starring Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, awaits release. American Violet takes its title from the African violets that wither while Roberts, unable to post bail, languishes in jail. It is the sobering tale of a noxious weed indigenous to Texas.