I know it’s a little early, okay way too early, but this is my Oscar pick for 2009. And not just for best movie, but for best actress, best actor, best supporting actor and best supporting actress and maybe best directing. I could go on.
(And just for full disclosure, as they say, I knew the director, Tim Disney, for awhile in my Hollywood years, a really nice guy, as I did some of the actors, in particular the wonderful Alfre Woodard and my good friend Michael O’Keefe, who is also a fine poet I’ll be reading with, among others, this Sunday at a benefit for the Bowery Poetry Club, see up top to the right for details.)
If you’re anything like me you go to highly recommended movies with a “show me” attitude, so if you don’t want to be influenced, even if reversely, from my reaction, stop reading and find out where this flick is playing and go see it now!
Otherwise, here’s my reaction: AMERICAN VIOLET manages to have an incredible emotional impact while being directed in an understated way that evokes such subtlety in the actors, especially the leading lady, Nicole Beharie, you might at first feel something’s missing, like Hollywood polish and obviousness.
The story is based on real events that occurred in Texas starting in 2000. But it could have been like lots of Hollywood style “true life” stories, a lot of which I enjoy (e.g. ERIN BROKAVITCH since this is like a low budget African-American version of that, only more real, more reminiscent of ON THE WATERFRONT in terms of acting and impact, or even more so NOTHING BUT A MAN).
Instead, it’s as though the obvious was repressed to showcase the unexpected, and whatever obviousness was left is so understated it’s almost thrown away. A direction often given to actors is “throw the line away” meaning you’re making too much of it, and this movie is full of thrown away lines but unlike in most movies, the ones thrown away in AMERICAN VIOLET are often the ones with the most emotional impact.
For instance, Charles S. Dutton plays the Reverend in AMERICAN VIOLET, a powerful actor who often explodes on screen and on stage with the intensity of his emotions. But not in this film. One of the finest moments in the movie is the final scene, the coda if you will or post-climactic scene that brings every emotion, if not every reality, stirred up by this movie to a satisfying resolution. In it Dutton’s Reverend singles out the flawed but determined and truthful heroine from his pulpit in such an underhanded and quick way your emotions react before you even register what he just said.
That’s some pretty fine directing, and casting. Everyone in it is terrific. But there are unexpected delights. Like Will Patton, an actor who got a role in a movie I was originally cast in but had to drop out of at the start of my movie acting “career” while he went on to act in a lot of interesting films (including one I had only a few scenes as the president in which were later cut, THE RAPTURE, but which he had a pretty big role in as the motorcycle cop).
Maybe partly for that reason I always found his acting pretty one dimensional and felt cheated because of that, like hey, I could have done so much more with those roles.
Not this time. He deserves a “Best Actor” Oscar for the incredibly restrained but perfectly realized truth of the Texas attorney he plays, a “good old boy” with a conscience, but one he doesn’t have to display or point out or even articulate specifically (also a tribute to the writing by Bill Haney, though with another director or actor it still could have been overdone or melodramatic). There’s one scene in particular with Patton that is the most moving scene he’s ever done and works so well in the understated way I’m talking about that the emotional impact is increased tenfold to what it would be if played and written for the “lesson” inherent in it that isn’t stated but understood.
In this flick, at least for the first hour or more of it, subtext is everything, little is spelled out until the climactic scene. I saw it with a couple of close friends who didn’t know the original story so were totally capable of being either put off or thrown by it, but instead were both knocked out.
I had read the original news stories about the real events so not only knew something of what to expect, but also recognized some of the lines spoken in the film as direct quotes from the real life statements of the participants. But even knowing pretty much what was coming in the arc of the story, the individual scenes were full of so many nuances and little surprises and touches of a reality rarely if ever seen on screen before, I was continually moved and engaged and so swept away I felt emotionally wrung out when it was over, in that great cathartic way.
I also felt like I’d had a completely satisfying movie experience. The acting was so unexpected at times, it often seemed like non-acting or even somehow not good because it contained the elements of reality that often look too awkward or self-conscious or self-righteous or repressed or hesitant that it clashes with what we’re used to from most Hollywood flicks.
This is something I was determined to bring to my film and TV acting that ended up at times looking too awkward or hesitant or so “real”—from my point of view—that it clashed with those around me in a scene and probably contributed to my not becoming the star the managers and agents and studio heads and others predicted (or hoped for), that and stepping on too many “toes” (to put it mildly) and ignoring too many of the powerful in that industry and making choices that weren’t smart in terms of playing that game well (and chance and other things way out of my control).
Sorry to get sidetracked with personal revelations but in this movie, more than any I’ve ever seen I think, all the acting seemed so authentically real life to me, even the obvious stuff, that it could win my ensemble acting award as well.
Just to single out some, I mentioned Alfre Woodard, who has never spent one second in any movie I’ve seen her in being anything other than totally true to the character and real in whatever situation the character is in. She’s an impeccable actor who deserves more awards than she’s received, including for this film (the scenes between her and Nicole Beharie playing her daughter were so fantastic in terms of duet acting I almost sobbed from the emotions they evoked and cheered for the beauty of their craft as they verbally dueled).
And Michael O’Keefe, who you might remember as the caddy in CADDYSHACK or the son in THE GREAT SANTITNI, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Or those of you who were into the Roseanne TV show, he played her brother-in-law. Lately he’s been appearing in smaller roles in movies that get major attention at awards time. Not for him, but without him they wouldn’t have been as good, i.e, MICHAEL CLAYTON, FROZEN RIVER and now AMERICAN VIOLET, which if it doesn’t get nominated for some Oscars would be a crime, including a Best Supporting role for Michael as what in any other film would be the stereotypical bad guy, but Michael—and the director and writer—turn into an example of “the banality of evil” (as Hanah Arendt put it when writing about Eichmann [who I could now see O'Keefe easily portraying and probably winning an Oscar for]).
Another actor who could easily be nominated for a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor for AMERICAN VIOLET is Tim Blake Nelson. He’s shown such a range in his movie roles that it’s amazing he hasn’t already won several Oscars—e.g. the dimwitted but hysterically unintentionally humorous third member of the "hillbilly" trio in O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? compared to the straight-laced, restrained but passionate Jewish Civil Rights lawyer in AMERICAN VIOLET.
Even in the small but crucial role of the lead character’s husband, the rapper and cable TV star (PIMP MY RIDE host) Xzibit, who always comes across as about as charming and congenial as anyone on TV, does a great job of humanizing another role that would have been played for the hard edge of the character alone by most other actors directed by most other directors. Instead, the whole range of human possibilities are expressed in the subtlety of some of his choices in the scenes he's in.
But the revelation of the movie is the star, Nicole Beharie, as beautiful as a young Beyonce. So beautiful you might question how appropriate she might be for the role of a young mother of four living in public housing in Texas, but she quickly turns that on its head, and again, not to be repetitive, she humanizes not only her beauty, but her character’s striving and failures in ways that seem uniquely real for these times.
Did I have any problems with this flick? The Texas accents don’t always harmonize, though they probably don’t in real life, but there could be objections raised to that or to the obviously low budget quality of other aspects of the flick, but like ON THE WATERFRONT and NOTHING BUT A MAN was for their times, this film captures a part of our reality that is too often overlooked or ignored in “art” and news and life, but shouldn’t be.
In fact, if you aren’t enlightened, as well as engaged by this worthy film, you need to see it again.