Volume 21, Number 50 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 24 - 30, 2009
Koch on Film
By Ed Koch
“American Violet” (+)
This film, based on a true incident, is well worth seeing.
I prefer watching actual newsreels of events presented in documentaries. Docudramas, like this film, invariably and understandably take liberties with the facts to heighten tension and emotions. One of the scenes involving the taking of depositions (key to success at the trial) simply didn’t ring true — but was necessary to propel the drama along. Nevertheless, it is a very good movie.
The story, which I had read about, is based on a true incident that occurred in Texas in the year 2000. A local district attorney running for reelection, Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe), attempts to improve his image as a crime fighter. He commences police raids on a public housing complex and 40 black people are arrested for selling drugs.
A mother of four, Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), is among those arrested. She initially believes the arrest is for unpaid traffic tickets but soon learns that the police believe she is a drug dealer. Dee’s mother, Alma (Alfre Woodard), urges her daughter to accept the plea bargain for which she will receive probation. Dee refuses to plead guilty to a crime she has not committed. The evidence against her is based on the testimony of a mentally disabled black man who had been institutionalized and is now being used by the D.A. in his reelection campaign.
An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson), comes to town to assist Dee and bring a case against the local police and D.A. Beckett. A local lawyer and a former district attorney, Sam Conroy (Will Patton), risks his life and profession to assist Cohen in his quest. While it is fascinating to see how the D.A.’s plan to criminally pursue the black community is destroyed in pretrial hearings, it was also a little too pat — almost at times like a Perry Mason television drama.
One of my proudest moments took place in the summer of 1964 when I and thousands of others were sent down south to represent young black and white students who were being arrested for encouraging black citizens to register to vote. My personal test was being inside a Laurel, Mississippi, courthouse with a mob outside waiting to assault my clients and me. Scared we would be killed, I called the local FBI office and was told they could not help. I took pride in the fact that after we got away safely, I returned twice to represent my clients in court.
The acting of the entire cast in the movie is superb. The discrimination depicted will occasionally bring tears to your eyes as will the fact that discrimination in this country has not yet been totally uprooted.
“State of Play” (-)
Like the film “Duplicity,” which was terrible, this picture received a lot of hype. Roger Ebert gave “State of Play” three stars. In my opinion, it doesn’t deserve any. It is an uninteresting and poorly-acted movie.
The film attempts to depict a congressional investigation of a security company similar to Blackwater which provided security in Iraq and came under criticism for behaving like a bunch of bandits who needlessly shot people. The hearing is led by a dashing young congressman, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), whose staff member died after being pushed off a Washington, D.C. subway platform. At the beginning of the movie we also see someone shoot two people in an alley. We learn why much later on in the film.
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is an ace reporter for The Washington Globe. He is assigned by its editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), to investigate the crimes. Cal lives in an apartment resembling a rat’s nest and dresses like a street bum, but he is known and respected by the cops.
Crowe’s performance is ridiculous. The director, Kevin Macdonald, required him to do a lot of running — some of which made absolutely no sense. Affleck acts as he generally does, like a stick figure. Helen Mirren is a fine actress and was especially wonderful in the British television series, “Prime Suspect,” in her portrayal of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. She is not convincing in this film in her role as a newspaper editor.