Sunday, April 19, 2009

New Movie: American Violet

The film tells the story of a woman arrested and accused of dealing drugs and her crusade to clear her name.

Six years ago, writer-producer Bill Haney was driving home during rush hour in Boston when he heard a National Public Radio story about Regina Kelly, a young African American woman -- a single mother with four daughters -- in the small Texas town of Hearne who was unjustly arrested during a raid on the projects where she lived. She was accused of dealing drugs.

The district attorney gave her the option of either a plea deal -- if she took the deal she wouldn't be allowed to vote and would lose most of her rights -- or going to jail for 25 years. Instead of conceding, the 24-year-old woman contested the charges and, after they were dismissed, teamed with the ACLU to file a discrimination suit against the D.A. and local police.

"She was basically given a 'Sophie's Choice,' " says Haney. "I began to cry and started crying so much I couldn't drive. I had kids myself, and the idea this sort of institutionalized casual cruelty was happening to a mother and young girls, it so infuriated and upset me."

Haney went to Texas and spent a lot of time with Kelly, her children and the attorneys, filming long interviews with them, as well as going through some 50,000 pages of legal documents.

"Regina was pregnant at 13, and the year I went there, in the African American high school, 169 kids entered as freshmen and only three had graduated," Haney says. "None went to college. The United States has the largest prison population in the world. Texas has the most people in prison of any place in the U.S. The long, dark hand of the criminal justice system is very clear when you spend time in the projects."

Haney says Kelly trusted him immediately. "I always felt a great responsibility to the story," he says. "She hadn't a lot of positive experiences with men, so for her to be as open and exposed as she was with me, I think that was really courageous."

"You have a choice when certain things happen to you in your life. She could have just taken the plea bargain and it would have been over. But she learned how she felt about being a citizen. . . . I think that's the sort of something we saw recently with our elections. People, once they kind of get fired up and decide they are going to change some things, you actually can."

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