The freeway to hell gets a fresh coat of asphalt in this sturdy, well-intentioned but ultimately sleepy slice of Southern small town race relations. The film is based on the true story of a series of controversial, racially charged police raids of a Texas housing project, with the 2000 Bush election chaos as backdrop. Among the dozens of African-American residents rounded up and hauled to jail is volatile single mother Dee Roberts (Nicole Behaire), who's in the midst of a nasty custody struggle, but is really only guilty of unpaid parking tickets. The ruthless local D.A. (Michael O'Keefe) pads his tough-on-crime stats by trumping charges against disenfranchised, easy targets such as Dee and leaning heavily on them to take a plea deal. But this feisty gal won't cave, she's not about buckle under and risk losing her kids over the stain of a false drug felony. Help arrives from a cavalry of do-gooding ACLU attorneys, led by Tim Blake Nelson, determined to make a stand against endemic prejudice and a rigged system.
The film is exceptionally well acted, especially by newcomer Behaire, who adds grace and grit to a cardboard-ready character. Nelson is as typically watchable as O'Keefe is appropriately oily — though it's easy to push buttons while playing such a stereotypically vicious redneck racist. But every moment is telegraphed, with plot developments as easy to spot as a black bear in the Sahara, though it's deeply satisfying watching the baddies get served a face full of justice. As noble as the subject matter is, and as committed as the actors are, it's a shame the filmmaking is so pedestrian that every shot pretty much screams lazy basic-cable afternoons.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].