American Violet - A Very American Tale

There is too much I want to tell you about the amazing film American Violet -- so I suppose I have to start at the beginning.

Back in February, I found myself sitting in a seat at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, furiously munching my popcorn and waiting for Slumdog Millionaire to start. I was a little pissed because while standing in the concession line waiting to buy that popcorn, my hair had been pet by a white couple.

No kidding, they'd found my afro fascinating and were positively shocked it was, "So soft!" Two seconds later, they were telling me how proud I must be of Barack Obama and how happy they were that racism was almost over.

As I sat there in that theater seat, reflecting on my put-me-in-the-zoo experience, my cynical side began to bubble. Racism, over? Really? What America did these people live in?

I began thinking how nice it was that everybody and their mama wanted to go to see Slumdog, a film essentially about the ripple effects of oppression in India. But I wondered if a story about African-American experiences, the real oppression that black people go through, the heartaches, tragedies and ultimate victories, would be just as popular. I wondered why more movies telling the reality of life for many black folks in this country, and how institutionalized injustice keeps a status quo in place right here in our own backyard, weren't being made.

And, just when I'd pessimistically concluded that Hollywood, and the majority of this nation, was not truly interested in truthful, essentially American stories, the trailer for American Violet began playing.

The second it ended, I said out loud, "I have to see that!" and wrote the movie title down in my "Big Ideas" notebook so I wouldn't forget it.

Then I sat back to watch Slumdog Millionaire -- and, although I enjoyed it, my mind kept wandering back to the big questions American Violet was asking me.

What I would do if I was at work and the cops busted in to arrest me, all without telling me the charges?

What would I do if I found out I'd been rounded up in a trumped up narcotics raid and falsely accused of selling drugs in a school zone?

Would I accept the District Attorney's plea bargain -- admitting guilt and becoming a felon -- just so I could get probation and immediately go home to my kids? Or would I refuse to plea and instead stand up to the judicial system, knowing I could face 16-25 years in prison if I lost at trial?

Sadly enough, beginning on November 2, 2000, Regina Kelly, excellently played in American Violet by Julliard-trained newcomer, Nicole Beharie had to face these decisions in real life. The character based on Kelly is called "Dee" in the film, and although American Violet is her story, surely it is the story of many of the 2.3 million Americans behind bars.

I attended the premiere on Monday night and, after the film was over, Director Tim Disney and writer/producer Bill Haney talked a bit about how they wanted American Violet to be, at it's essence, a spotlight on how the "War on Drugs" is not only ineffective, but is also being used in a racially targeted manner.

In Texas, where the film is set and where the real-life events took place, drug task force arrests could be made based on the word of a single informant. It didn't matter how reliable that informant was. If I can't stand you because I think you looked at me funny one day, I might go tell the police that I saw you selling drugs, and you'd get arrested.

And, what does racism have to do with it? Even though whites and blacks use drugs at equal rates, police weren't descending en mass on white neighborhoods. Somehow, informers on white drug users or dealers were non-existent.

But before you think this is just a Texas is sooo racist kind of thing, keep in mind that the rate of drug admission to state prison for black men in America is 13 times greater than that for white men.

Until they agreed to a plea bargain or posted tens of thousands of dollars in bail (and when you're poor, who has that kind of cash?), District Attorneys would keep folks like Regina Kelly locked up in jail. Actual guilt didn't matter. What mattered was putting on the pressure to get the conviction because federal money from the "War on Drugs" went to the counties that had the most drug-related convictions.

How much federal money? It costs American taxpayers over $40 billion dollars a year to fund the "War on Drugs".

What would have happened if Regina took the plea and agreed to become a felon on probation? She would lose her government housing as well as Medicare for herself and her children.

Everybody always wants to say folks are getting government assistance because they are too lazy to work. Try supporting your family on a minimum wage job.

Actually, try getting a job with a felony conviction on your record and see how that works out for you.

I also saw the ACLU in a new light after seeing this film. Instead of the being the super-secular, sue-for-whatever-annoying-reason attorneys they are portrayed as in the mainstream media, it was very clear that without ACLU assistance, the corruption and racism at play in this particular situation would not have been fully shut down.

Tim Disney and Bill Haney also talked about screening the film in Hearne, Texas where the real-life story took place. They briefly shared tales of Ku Klux Klan insanity, police harassment and NAACP involvement. Again, all this in so-called post-racial America.

As I wandered around the premiere reception, I overheard a few people expressing shock that the events depicted took place, not in 1920 or 1950, but within the last decade. I wondered about the disconnect that we have in this nation that we are so unaware and blind to what happens to low-income people of color.

Then I spotted Regina Kelly.

What could I say but to thank her for refusing to accept the plea bargain offered. She is, in essence, a modern day Rosa Parks, and of course I wanted a picture with her.

I attended a press round-table yesterday and I and a few colleagues got the chance to ask both Regina and Nicole Beharie a few questions. Here's what they said when asked about what keeps them going and what inspires them:

Hello, Oprah? If you want to talk to mothers about how they work through the struggles they're going through, how about you talk to Regina Kelly?

American Violet also stars powerhouse actress Alfre Woodard (captured here talking about her character with writer/producer Bill Haney), Academy Award nominee Michael O'Keefe, Emmy Award winner Charles S. Dutton, Michael Barrett and Xzibit. It opens this Friday, April 17th and here's a list of cities and theaters for you.

No kidding, this is probably the best film I've seen so far this year.

We can put our votes in a ballot box, but we also vote every day with our dollars, so go support a film that's seeking to bring light to both our nation's racist, unjust drug policies and questionable law enforcement tactics. After all, a part of our Pledge of Allegiance is, "with liberty and justice for all." Let's each do something to make sure that "for all" part actually happens.


Daniel said…
Los Angelista,
Great post.

And how does Alfre Woodard get prettier every year?
pooneh said…
Liz -
I haven't been the movie theater since my older one was born, but I might just have to get a babysitter for this one!
thanks for the post, and for all you do and say!
Remnants of U said…
I was afraid that it would only show in LA & NY. I am glad that it is showing here. I will be there Friday.

It seems that Texas is always the state that has the horrific court cases, and since I grew up in TX, that troubles me even more that your average American.

Thank you for writing about this movie.
April said…
Great post!
If the war on drugs were focused more on rehab, perhaps my ex-husband would not still be addicted to crack. And you'll love this: for all the crimes he's committed, and all the times he's been arrested and they've found drugs on him, he's never been arrested for drugs. Guess his race. Yep, he's caucasian.
nick said…
Looks like a good film. No idea if it's coming over here, must keep an eye out for it. So racism is almost over? Ha ha ha. Like feminism is obsolete and everyone loves gays. Many people don't know the half of what goes on in the name of law enforcement and how biased and rigged it can often be - especially if you're from the wrong side of the tracks.
Gayatri said…
I have a feeling you have a whole lot more to say, so I am gonna tune in to hear more truth telling about the movie, and race relations, and oh so much more!!!
Liz Dwyer said…
Daniel,Thanks! :) She has those good genes and obviously takes GREAT care of herself. Too elegant!

Pooneh,Wow, it has been a LONG time since you've been to a movie! I remember going to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the day before my labor got induced and just feeling like it might be a LONG while till I would be babysitter free! I hope if you do get a sitter that you really enjoy the film.

Remnants of U,I'm glad it's showing in some other places as well because I was TOTALLY thinking NY/LA, too! Well, you know here in LA, we had the worst police corruption scandal in US History so don't feel too bad about the Texas thing. That said, I believe Texas/Lousiana have the highest rates of black male incarceration, so that does say something.

April,Just, wow. My heart goes out to you. There is a LOT more that needs to happen with rehab, not just sentencing people to jail time. I know what you went through had to be so heartbreaking to watch, and yeah, so not right that enforcement of the law is not applied equally. Hugs to you.

Nick,I wonder if it will be released overseas. You might have to wait for the DVD. Yeah, all these "isms" we have are still alive and well. Law enforcement is definitely a whole other ballgame if you're not from a position of privilege.

Gayatri,I do have a LOT more to say. I think I have a post brewing about the role of white people in fostering justice and equality. :)
Wow it's so cool that you got to cover this project. That's the great part about living in LaLa Land. There was a mention of it at WAOD and people have to steer the conversation to Tyler Perry. This movie should be featured on every blog dedicated to social justice and feminism. So I'm going to think about a write up myself. Thanks for covering this so thoroughly!
Cyndee said…
Can't wait to see the movie - but it is weird how people don't realize the drug enforcement racism has been going on for a long time. Just look at the disparity in the laws for punishing crack and powder cocaine. Usually poor people use crack - so one rock = a felony.
Liz Dwyer said…
Faith,How do they connect this movie to Tyler Perry? I'm confused. Ok, I have to go over there to check it out.

Cyndee,Yeah, the powder/rock distinction is crazy. Same drug, different form. It'd be like if I told you you can't have any H2O and I let you go if you have liquid water but arrest you for having ice. Stupid!
BZ said…
Awesome post and THANK YOU for sharing!!! I have put American Violet on my list of movies to see. Hugs from Boston
1969 said…
This sounds awesome, thanks for bringing the film to our attention.

You look fab by the way!
Lisa Johnson said…
This looks like a great movie and I had not even heard of it. Such a shame. I hope to see it soon.
Shiona said…
Wow! I have added this to my list of movies as well. This definitely is something sadly many people do not want to touch.
Jameil said…
you know i'm a movie fiend. since it's not in FL, rah and i will go see it next week. thanks for the heads up, liz. i love to support black films.
Liz Dwyer said…
BZ,So glad to be able to share about it. I hope you get to check it out, and hugs to you, too!

1969,I think it opens in your area in like a week or so. I really hope the film does well so that more films that don't depict us as "Rasputia" types can get made.

I am not feeling so fab these days! I just need more sleep and to do MORE sit-ups, but thank you for saying so! :)

Anali,If I hadn't seen that preview when I went to see Slumdog, I'm not sure if I would've heard about it. I haven't seen info about it anywhere, which is really a shame.

Shiona,No, folks don't want to touch it... I mean, I'm still trying to figure out what the tea party thing was all about, other than being a mass of folks holding signs saying Obama=Hitler -- if they want something real to protest, hey, this is a GREAT issue! (I know, when hell freezes over, that crowd will protest this sort of injustice!)

Jameil,I love to support them, too, especially when they aren't just a mish-mash of negative stereotypes about black women. The guys who made the film usually do documentaries, but thought this story should be told in this format, so you know I totally thought about you and how a feature film could be in your future! :)
This is on my list to see.

I'm in the middle of Season Two of THE WIRE. I agree the "War on Drugs" is not working. Not at all.

p.s. I can't believe that couple touched your hair. grrrr
golden star said…
Jack and Jill Politics linked to your review and thanks so much for your great post!

I saw the film last week at a sneak preview sponsored by the ACLU. This film is so darn good and not the over-the-top histrionic pablum that gets peddled on a weekly basis. This is old-school good, down-to-the-bone good, makes-you- wanta-do-the-right-thing good.

An absolute must-see!
Liz Dwyer said…
NYC/CRLike another war we have going on, the War on Drugs gets a big FAIL.

I am going to make Do Not Pet My Afro shirts. Here's what my hair looks like these days:

Golden Star,Thanks for coming over and visiting my blog. Yes, this movie is definitely a must see. It really just tells the story like it is, and I like that it is not over-acted. It's a straight story of something that happens all the time in so many places.

I feel so very helpless to do anything about all of this. Truly helpless.
Anonymous said…
I love you because you dare to say things that people only think- you are taking on the world and winning!
Liz Dwyer said…
Claudia,I know how you feel. But I keep thinking how important it is for us each to keep doing what we know to be right and just in our own individual lives and speaking out in the circles we each move in. Surely, that makes a difference.

Anonymous,:) I really care about this issue and I keep thinking about it a great deal, so I'm glad if that sentiment came through in what I wrote. We surely need more truth, and more love in this world.

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