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Terrorized in a Texas town

FILM CRITIC

We tend to think of the U.S. justice system as the best in the world -- as Americans we can be blindly self-righteous like that, going through life assuming that the people who should are paying attention to the “innocent until proven guilty” clause on which it was built.

Then along comes a film like “American Violet,” a disquieting drama based on the true story of a young single mother arrested during what turned out to be a tainted, race-based drug sweep by a conviction-hungry DA in a small Texas town. And everything you thought you could count on gets thrown out the window.

The story begins in 2000 just as George W. Bush’s presidential fate was being decided by the Florida recount, and news footage from that time is used throughout like ironic background music. Dee Roberts, played by promising newcomer Nicole Beharie, was 24, living in the projects with her four young children and getting by on what she made as a waitress and government assistance. All that ended when a drug sweep landed her in jail with a felony charge and the possibility of 10 years behind bars.

What happens next is the heart of the film, with director Tim Disney and screenwriter Bill Haney taking us down into the eighth circle of hell (where the treacherous are dispatched) as Dee, with no drug record and no drugs found anywhere near her, refuses to take a plea bargain for a crime she is adamant she did not commit.

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There are many big themes running through this small movie -- racial profiling, handy legal loopholes that protect bad guys masquerading as good, fear-based plea-bargains, and the stranglehold a powerful politician can have over a town. All this the filmmakers try to distill through Dee’s singular experience, which sometimes makes for a push-pull affair between the drama and the details.

Like many who grow up in the projects, most of the cards are stacked against Dee. A mother by the time she was 13, she’s been working hard to keep her kids fed, clothed and loved since she was a child herself. She gets a hand with the kids from her mother (Alfre Woodard), help with her soul from her church pastor (Charles Dutton), and a life-changing assist in her fight from the ACLU.

It’s a classic David versus Goliath story, but that biblical happy ending is far from a given. Early in the film, her glib court-appointed attorney and one of the assistant DAs discuss her fate with her as if a felony plea bargain and 10 years of probation is a gift, and you understand that for this woman in this moment guilt or innocence is sadly beside the point.

Beharie has the long, lean look of a dancer -- the back impossibly straight, the muscles finely wrought -- that works well for her character, someone who needs a steely resolve if she is to survive this.

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Michael O’Keefe turns up as a very nasty piece of work, giving the vengeful DA a seething, imperious anger that makes you want to avoid even driving through his town.

Disney and Haney’s years in the documentary trenches prove to be both a blessing and a curse for “American Violet.” The narrative is infused with chilling facts, and the filmmakers know how to build their case, but a drama demands more. We should have been immersed in Dee’s wrenching journey, not just sitting it out on the sidelines.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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‘American Violet’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material, violence, drug references and language

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

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Playing: In selected theaters


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