American Violet (Tim Disney) – SXSW 2009
For the most part, documentaries have traditionally been the celluloid messengers of stories and information we should know, what we need to know, about what’s going on in our world. Stories that don’t often appear in the nightly news, but which affect our culture, our society and its people in negative and positive ways.
Then there are narrative films like “American Violet” that not only bring to the forefront a story of injustice, but one of inspiration found in the bravery and tenacity of one young woman.
In 2000, while George W. Bush and his Republican party was busy stealing the presidential election through a variety of covert and unethical actions, his state of Texas was taking down the lower-income neighborhoods in the town of Hearne.
Directed by Tim Disney (Blessed Art Thou), “American Violet” is based on what took place that day, using documentation, court transcripts, recordings, and other material to form this captivating movie. Hearne is now the town of Melody. The real heroine Regina Kelly in now called Dee Roberts, the 24-year old mother of four who defies the numerous odds against her.
Taken from the movie’s trailer, “What’s happening in Melody is happening all over the country. Drug task forces use military tactics to terrorize poor people, jailing them for a variety of charges, most of which are drug related. Meanwhile, Federal money goes to the counties that convict the most people. Plea bargains are aggressively pushed to hasten the convictions.”
Dee Roberts (played fiercely by amazing the Nicole Beharie), was one of 15 others in Melody arrested as part of the drug bust that swept through a housing project and its residents using bogus charges. She was never involved in drugs. Never took or sold drugs. But with the help of a so-called informant, she and the others were arrested.
The bulls-eye target is planted on the neighborhood by the corrupt, racist, district attorney of Melody, Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe).
Despite the use of strong arm tactics to push her to plea bargain, Roberts refuses to comply, steadfast in her position of innocence.
This is where we learn of the staggering statistic relating to the use of plea bargains in this country. According to a 2000 United States Department of Justice, the defendants who retained public counsel plea bargained their case 87.1% of the time, and only 5.2% went to trial. This could be one reason why there are more African American males in jail than there are in college. And when you look at the number of private for-profit jails operating, including within the state of Texas, money and greed can once again be made the culprit.
Many of those arrested that day in Melody do plea bargain their case. Uneducated and unsure of their rights, teamed with a public defender that’s doing more harm than good, many sign away their lives.
Because of her stance, Roberts sits in jail while receiving threats from those within the city’s justice system. Meanwhile, the father of her children (Xzibit) takes them back while she’s in jail, although she has sole custody. She loses her job at the diner. Even her mother (Alfre Woodard) is pressuring her to plead out.
Then the ACLU gets word of her case, sending their attorney David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) to fight her case, who seeks out and teams with a former local narcotics officer (Will Patton) who is hoping to heal the sins of his past by playing a part in Roberts’ justice.
This landmark case opens the eyes not only of those who are the victims of racial profiling and unlawful prosecution in Texas, but the city and country as a whole. It also boggles the mind that even in the 21st century, parts of this country are still embroiled in racist acts of this magnitute.
Kudos to Disney and his team, and the actors involved, in bringing “American Violet” to the big screen and this subject matter to filmgoers attention. They were present for the screening and made the point that the film did quite well at its screening in Texas, something I was curious about as I watched the film.
Although Beharie brings you into her world throughout the film, it is in her character’s private, intimate moments in “American Violet” where she actor shines, digging deep to present the personal sacrifices the real Dee Roberts went through, the heartache and worry about the care of her children and the future for her own life.