Casualties of the war on drugs

May 7, 2009

A new Hollywood movie dares to tell the truth about the "war on drugs." Helen Redmond reviews it.

AMERICAN VIOLET is an important new film that exposes the racism that is central to the war on drugs. With the exception of Steven Soderbergh's film Traffic, Hollywood doesn't make movies that portray the day-to-day impact that the war on drugs has on the lives of Black people.

The film is based on the real-life story of Regina Kelly, a 24-year-old, Black single mom with four children who has the misfortune of living in Texas. Tough-on-crime Texas has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the U.S., a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Documentary filmmaker Bill Haney wrote the screenplay to American Violet after hearing Kelly's story on National Public Radio. He went to Hearne, Texas, and interviewed those involved in the case. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent him 50,000 pages of affidavits.

At one point, Haney said to himself, "OK, is this just one screwed-up situation, one screwed up town?" Then the ACLU sent him records from across the U.S. No doubt among them was the case of Tulia, Texas. In 1999, 46 people were arrested in a drug sting operation there; 40 of them were Black.

American Violet stars Nicole Beharie and Alfre Woodard

As a result of this drug bust, almost 15 percent of Tulia's Black population was incarcerated. The defendants were convicted on the evidence of a single undercover agent who was later indicted on perjury charges. Four years later, the governor of Texas pardoned 35 people convicted in the case.

Newcomer Nicole Beharie portrays Dee Roberts in the film and does a terrific job showing how confusion and fear of the justice system gives way to anger and the desire to fight back, despite overwhelming odds.

Dee is waiting tables when the police burst in and arrest her in front of customers. At the same time, a massive military-style drug raid is unfolding in the housing project where she lives. A nightmarish legal odyssey begins, one that is all too familiar to thousands of poor Blacks charged with drug offenses. Every step of the way, Dee learns how the criminal injustice system is stacked against her. She spends 21 days in jail because bail is set at $70,000.

At the arraignment, she is accused of possession of an illegal substance with intent to distribute, even though no drugs were found on her or in the home. Dee's court-appointed lawyer--young, inexperienced and hostile--tries to scare her into accepting a plea bargain. If she pleads guilty to felony charges, she'll get 10 years probation. But, he argues, if it goes to trial, she could face the possibility of 99 years in prison.

Review: Movies

American Violet, written by Bill Haney, directed by Tim Disney, starring Nicole Beharie and Michael O'Keefe.

Dee asserts over and over that she is innocent and demands to see the evidence against her. Here is one of the important lessons of American Violet, as explained by ACLU lawyer David Cohen. A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and the accused in which the accused pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence or a reduced charge.

Nearly 95 percent of all felony cases never reach a jury; they're settled by plea bargaining. Among these cases are thousands who are innocent, but if they reject the deal and lose at trial, they face decades-long prison sentences. Add the fear factor and most people take the plea. The negative consequences of taking the plea hound the innocent-but-now-guilty, "free" convicted felon--loss of benefits and jobs, student loans, public housing and the right to vote.

IT TAKES enormous courage for Dee to reject the plea. Even her mother pressures her to accept, reminding her that four children need a mother and arguing that she can't possibly win against the district attorney.

Calvin Beckett is the quintessential small town cracker DA and is played perfectly by Michael O'Keefe. He's determined to get a conviction to guarantee federal money for the paramilitary drug force he oversees. He is so sure he can secure a conviction that he doesn't care that there isn't a shred of evidence against Dee, and his so-called eyewitness is a mentally ill, ex-convict he's beaten into lying.

This is the other strength of the film--it shows the dark side of the state many Americans haven't seen, and the prosecutors who will go to extraordinary lengths to convict people they know are innocent.

At the request of Rev. Sanders, portrayed by Charles Dutton, the ACLU takes the case. The reverend educates and rallies the community to stand up for Dee and to fight the racist criminal justice system. The film would have more depth if this aspect of the story had been developed. Too often the legal strategies are the focus of films about the criminal justice system, when the drama of what happens outside the courtroom is just as compelling.

Films about racism are often overshadowed by well-meaning white characters. Fortunately, this film largely stays focused on Dee, her family and other Black characters--including the African American ACLU attorney who expertly questions the racist Beckett in one of the film's most satisfying scenes.

Meanwhile, Dee's life spins out of control. She loses the job she'd held for seven years when the police warn her employer they'll raid the restaurant and lock her up for hiring undocumented workers. Dee's oldest daughter is hounded by children who taunt that her mother is a drug dealer. Then Dee's ex-partner starts a custody battle accusing her of being an unfit mother.

American Violet portrays just one battle in a 30-year war that continues to take prisoners every single day.

Regina Kelly, who is an activist against the war on drugs, was recently in Hearne for a screening of American Violet. There were rumors that the KKK would come, and threats reportedly also came from the DA's office. That didn't stop over 450 people from attending the screening. Kelly reports that when the movie ended, white people in the audience commented, "Oh my God, we didn't know the [the DA] was like that."

Kelly continued, "A lot of people wanted to stand up and do something. I just hope everybody continues to feel like that and not just let it die down." That's the power of American Violet. Go see it.

Recent articles

Friday, December 14th

Thursday, December 13th

Wednesday, December 12th

Tuesday, December 11th

Monday, December 10th

Friday, December 7th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives