In November, 2000, a drug raid swept up 27 African-American people in Hearne, Texas, a town between Waco and Bryan. If the cops and DA had stopped at 26, chances are no on would know about the incident. But they didn't; Regina Kelly was picked up as well.
A 24-year-old single mother of four working as a waitress, Kelly was charged with dealing drugs in a school zone. This despite the fact that no drugs were found on her or in her home when they were searched. After shaky witnesses were produced, Kelly was offered a plea for ten years probation. She refused.
Others swept up in the raid did plead guilty, thinking probation was better than a long jail term awaiting trial. But Kelly not only refused to accept the plea deal, she sued the District Attorney and the Hearne Police Department for racial discrimination - and won.
Tim Disney (yes, he's one of those Disneys) directed American Violet, the film based on the incident and he says his first reaction was a mixture of admiration and outrage. "When I first heard this story," Disney tells Hair Balls, "I thought, 'This must be from the 1930s.' But it's not, it's happening all over this country, to this day. Not everyone is as overt as this district attorney was, in most cases people are more covert about their personal feelings," he says, "but this is still happening every day."
Even though rounding up black defendants and accusing them of drug charges, with little or no evidence was, Kelly says, "an annual occurrence in our town," other townspeople encouraged Kelly and the others to take the plea. "Everybody thought that I was gonna start this big ruckus in the town. They were like, 'Just let him be. Take the plea and go on.' No. How can you even suggest that? No."
Nicole Beharie plays Dee, the role based on Kelly. Alfre Woodard plays her mother, Charles S. Dutton, the family pastor and Xzibit the father to two of her children. Michael O'Keefe and Will Patton round out the cast as the DA and an attorney for the plaintiff, respectively.
Disney took some liberties with the story. Dee is the only plaintiff in the film; in reality there were more than half a dozen, for example. But he says he stayed as true to the story as he could.
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"In some ways you have to depart from the very specific literal events to capture the truth. I think we really captured the essence of what happened," he says. "My challenge as a film maker was to take this true story and render it into a compelling movie. I felt a grave responsibility to tell this story honestly, the good and bad. It's tempting to craft a fake-but-satisfying ending. We made the choice to tell it like is. Progress was made as a result of this suit, some laws were changed and the drug task force was disbanded, but there isn't a neat tidy solution to the situation."
One of those untidy bits is the fact that the DA, even after it was proved that he was racially discriminating against the people in Hearne, was re-elected to office. He remains in office today.
"It isn't over. I don't think it will ever stop," says Kelly, who recently left Hearne and moved to Houston. "This [movie] is my justice. By this story getting told, people can see exactly what happened, exactly what we went through in that town, how hard it was and how [the D.A.] runs our town. I would like to see him disbarred because he has no human compassion for us. A lot of communities go through this and they have DAs just like ours. Maybe we can get something done on a federal level where we don't have to deal with things like this and there are consequences ... for ruining our lives like this."
American Violet opens on May 1 in Houston. Check www.americanviolet.com for information about times and theaters.