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American Violet: A Powerful Movie about Race and the Drug War

05/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

American Violet is not a "horror movie." It has no monsters, zombies, or mass murderers in it. Just people. But the movie's powerful message on the role racism plays in the Drug War will likely horrify you just the same. So while American Violet is about as far from the "horror" genre in moviemaking as you can get, audiences may indeed be horrified (or perhaps outraged) at the injustice displayed by one district attorney in Texas.

This impressive new film tells one woman's story of abuse at the hands of a hostile legal system. For different reasons, it evokes such past films as Erin Brockovich, Mississippi Burning, and the works of Sidney Poitier in the Civil Rights era. American Violet tells the story of legal injustice and systemic, institutionalized racism -- and the struggle to overcome such prejudice. One big difference from these earlier films, however, is that the events which inspired American Violet happened in the year 2000. Throughout the movie, news clips are shown in the background which chronicle the election (and aftermath) between Al Gore and George W. Bush, just to remind us that this is not some story from the 1960s-era, but that this sort of thing still happens all too often in today's America.

The movie is a fictionalized retelling of the true story of Regina Kelly, of Hearne, Texas. Her story has previously appeared on the PBS show Frontline, which reported on her case in June of 2004. The American Civil Liberties Union has the details of the legal case she brought against the Texas D.A. (Regina Kelly v. John Paschall) on their site, for those who are interested in the underlying case the movie is based upon. Kelly's website (www.reginakelly.com) is one of the best places to get information and links, or you can watch and listen to Kelly tell her own story on YouTube.

American Violet tells Kelly's story from the perspective of "Dee Roberts" (portrayed admirably by Nicole Beharie). The film does not shy away from portraying Dee as a flawed character, who is occasionally prone to bursts of outrage. But this outrage only serves to make her more human, since it is always provoked in defense of her four small children. After Dee is arrested and dragged from her workplace in handcuffs, she is told by her court-appointed attorney to take a plea bargain for a crime she did not commit. She faces a no-win situation. Agreeing to the plea bargain (which would leave her with a felony record for selling drugs in a school zone) would immediately return her to her children. But by doing so, she will be barred from any federal assistance in the future, such as food stamps or federal housing.

With considerable risk to her own future, Dee becomes the plaintiff in a class-action test case championed by ACLU attorney "David Cohen" (played by Tim Blake Nelson). Dee sues everyone involved -- up to and including District Attorney "Calvin Beckett" (portrayed by Oscar-nominee Michael O'Keefe) -- claiming racial discrimination led to the drug sweep and mass arrest in which she was caught up.

Without spoiling the ending, American Violet is an excellent movie, and tells the story in a moving and heart-wrenching fashion. The ACLU lawyer is portrayed as a white knight, helping the powerless; but even he shows doubts when Dee asks if any of this will actually do any good. The humanity of all the characters (including Xzibit, who appears in the film) is on display, for both the good guys and the bad guys. There are no monsters in the film, as I said before, only people. These people are flawed in various ways, as are we all. The actors portraying them in the film do an excellent job of portraying the whole spectrum of these flaws.

The underlying message of the film is an important one. This sort of thing does indeed still happen in America. Racism has not magically disappeared. Graham Boyd, the real-life ACLU lawyer who was at the center of Kelly's case (and who is also Director of the ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project) had this to say about the larger implications brought up by the film, and by Kelly's experience itself:

What happened in Hearne is far from an isolated incident. The absence of appropriate regulations and oversight have allowed the misuse and abuse of confidential informants to become an everyday occurrence in the "War on Drugs," breeding systemic injustice on a national scale. Worse still, this situation has largely been hidden from public scrutiny -- left to the shadows, it has greatly undermined both the fairness and effectiveness of our criminal justice system. In Hearne, however, we witnessed the rare instance when such scandalous law enforcement conduct is exposed to the light of day. Owing largely to the courage and commitment of Hearne's Regina Kelly -- portrayed in American Violet by Nicole Beharie -- in the aftermath of the case, Texas became the first state in the nation to enact comprehensive reforms of the confidential informant system. Texas has become the first state to require that confidential informants must be corroborated. She was arrested because of one drug-addicted, mentally ill informant who lied and did nothing to check the truth of what he was saying. That can't happen in Texas anymore. Efforts are now underway to replicate these reforms in other states and at the federal level, and American Violet offers an invaluable vehicle to educate both the public and policymakers on this critical issue. The case proved a rare catalyst for deeply needed reform of a deeply entrenched injustice, and, with some luck, the film could do the same.

Which is the whole point. Barack Obama may now be president, but this has not instantly transformed America into some post-racial utopia overnight. There are still places in America where barely-disguised racism is not only deeply ingrained in American society, but also runs City Hall. American Violet is a story of one woman fighting back against such a system, with the help of the ACLU. If that isn't enough reason to go see this film, then go see it because it is an impressive and powerful piece of filmmaking that won't disappoint.

 

American Violet opens in selected markets across the country this Friday, April 17th, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Dallas, and Atlanta. It will open in Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Houston, and San Francisco on May 1st. The film will be distributed by Samuel Goldwyn. Further information on theaters showing the film should be available on either the film's website, www.americanviolet.com, or on Regina Kelly's own website.

 

[Full disclosure: I am not a movie reviewer normally, so my apologies if this first attempt at writing a movie review falls short. I was provided with a pre-release review copy of the film to watch, and was told I could keep the DVD. This was the only compensation I received to write this of any form.] Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

 

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