Regina Kelly, whose personal story of triumph
against wrongful accusation of drug possession and sale is chronicled by
director Tim Disney in the drama
"American Violet", now playing in select cities in the U.S. and Canada.
(Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com)
A Mother's Fight For Truth, Justice And
The "American Violet" Way
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Friday, May 15, 2009
"From the very beginning I was ready to go through whatever, you know, in order
to get my justice."
Those words from Regina Kelly mean more than they may first appear to. A
single mother of four, Ms. Kelly was minding her own business in November 2000
in the town of Hearn, Texas when she was ambushed by several jackbooted police
SWAT team members who arrested her and some two dozen others on sight. Ms.
Kelly later learned that her arrest was for drug possession and sales (she'd
never possessed, sold, nor used drugs.) Before she knew what hit her,
Ms. Kelly was faced with an unenviable dilemma: plead guilty to a crime she
hadn't committed and go home a convicted felon, or face a 25-year prison sentence
upon presumably insurmountable odds against acquittal at trial.
Regina Kelly stuck to her guns, taking on the twisted and racially
discriminatory criminal justice system in Texas in a town whose district
attorney, Charles Beckett, was well-supported by the community and known as a
blatant racist. Ms. Kelly emerged victorious but not before enduring a
monumental fight to clear her name. Ms. Kelly was indicted
solely on the word of an unreliable witness and police informant facing drug
charges of his own. As a result of Ms. Kelly's courageous fight and
vindication, Texas overturned its single corroborator law, and now requires that a
person cannot be indicted on the testimony of a single individual. The
American Civil Liberties Union also played a key role in Ms. Kelly's fight for
Ms. Kelly's trials and tribulations are chronicled in director Tim Disney's
powerful new feature film "American Violet", which is playing in various
cities across the country (New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco among them.)
Starring relative newcomer Nicole Beharie as Dee Roberts (the fictional Ms.
Kelly) and a strong ensemble cast (Alfre Woodard, Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton,
Michael O'Keefe, Charles S. Dutton and Xzibit), "American Violet" recreates the
trauma, pain and pride of Ms. Kelly as she languished in humiliating conditions
in a women's county jail
waiting to fight the system that put her there under highly questionable and
unjust circumstances. She spoke of having to go to the bathroom in front
of her three cellmates. There was no privacy ever. There were just two beds, so two women
had to sleep on the cold floor. The film softens these circumstances
slightly but is no less powerful.
Late last month Ms. Kelly and Mr. Disney were at a hotel here amidst noise and
various background distractions talking about the real and reel story just
before "Violet" was screened for a group of journalists. "I wanted to keep going," Ms.
Kelly said, describing her resolute stand in the face of adversity. "When I had to go and fight for my children I didn't second
guess anything. I just knew it was going to work out. It might sound
strange but I just -- I always knew that it was going to work out for the best."
Ms. Kelly's statement exemplifies confidence, but there is something more for this
now-32-year-old mother of four that got her through the rough seas of injustice:
her faith in God. "'Where did I get the strength from?' They always
ask me that," Ms. Kelly said of people that she runs into wherever she goes.
"And I lot of people say to me, 'I couldn't have done it, I couldn't have done
it', but you never know until you're in those shoes, until you have to go
through that, you never know what you might do." Ms. Kelly cited the fact
that a lot of people in her predicament don't have a movie backing their voice
or their own story of wrongful indictment, prosecution and imprisonment, but she
hailed "American Violet" as a film representative of and for "everyone" in that
Bill Haney, the film's writer and producer, had first heard about Ms. Kelly's
ordeal on National Public Radio six years ago and relayed the story to his
creative partner Mr. Disney who recalled, "I thought that was something from the
1930s. And I was appalled to find that this was a modern day story."
Ms. Kelly's true-life story was happening, Mr. Disney said, "against the
backdrop of the Patriot Act and John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez and all
these things. It just seemed like an important story to tell."
There was a similar story in Tulia, Texas of a rogue cop whose testimony and
nefarious behavior wrecked lives, putting literally hundreds and hundreds of
black residents behind bars for drug crimes they did not commit, happened just
prior to the events leading to Ms. Kelly's incarceration following her arrest in
Hearn. While the white police officer in the Tulia affair was a
destructive and deceitful force unto himself, with the NAACP stepping in to counteract the
negativity and racism of the officer and the injustice he perpetuated, for Mr. Disney's
chronicle of the Hearn, Texas situation, Regina Kelly was
a dynamic, self-actualizing figure for her own freedom and sense of moral
uprightness. "She was the one who started it and drove it all along the
line. I thought that that was a fundamentally different way to tell the
Mr. Disney referred to films like "Mississippi Burning" and "To Kill A
Mockingbird", which depicted the plight of blacks in the American South during
the turbulent 1960s and its Civil Rights Era but marginalized blacks in
their stories. "They were all told from the point of view of the white,
kind of daddy figure. Which is -- I'm not saying anything bad about that.
There's a reason for that I think that allowed a white audience to bond with the
black characters, you know, and they had a purpose. We didn't think that
that was appropriate in this case. So we wanted to tell it from Regina's
point of view."
For Ms. Kelly, the case of injustice against her has taught her a valuable
lesson from which she identified some positives. "Now I'm not so much
na´ve about the system as I was before," opined Ms. Kelly, a relaxed and
striking figure of good looks and composure, flashing a friendly smile to her
interviewer. "You know, I was one of those people who really believed in
the justice system. And now I honestly don't. And I'm educated on
the fact that this is not an isolated issue. This is something that goes
on in everyone's community all around the world." Ms. Kelly conducts
speaking events around the United States to talk about the nightmare and
ultimate vindication against the racist district attorney who admitted that his
relentless prosecution of the citizens of Hearn was motivated by race and
racism. Despite such admissions, Mr. Beckett, whom the director said in a
Q&A following a recent screening had at least four previous marriages, continues to this day to
occupy the position he does, having been re-elected once more by the majority of
citizens in Hearn, which in "American Violet" is changed to the fictional town
Addressing a question she frequently hears from people, Ms. Kelly said that her
children are "doing great" and that she recently -- within the last few weeks in
fact -- moved intrastate, from Hearn to Houston. Asked about what she
learned about herself during the tough times, she said the following:
"I've come to find out that in so many ways I'm exactly like my Mom."
She bursts into laughter.
"Yeah, because she's so opinionated, so strong and bullheaded and all that.
I've always been the one who's you know, 'Mom, come on now, you know.' And
I'm exactly like her."
Asked if she had expected to become that way, Ms. Kelly said, "No, I was so
different." She laughs heartily again.
Mr. Disney relayed a similar story about one of his own sisters, which ended
with this quote: "'oh my God, I'm fifty years old and I realize I'm just like my
"They always say that your children will take you through everything that you
took your parents through," said Ms. Kelly. "But none of that has happened
with my daughters, so I'm blessed! Because I know I was -- I'm not gonna
say a horrible child -- but I gave my mom a run for her money."
Ms. Kelly's daughters are Deamber, aged 17, Marquisha, 15, Kevosha, 10, and
Alfre Woodard plays Ms. Kelly's real-life mother in "American Violet", and the
chemistry between Ms. Beharie and Ms. Woodard is remarkable, with talent firing
on all cylinders, even as financial constraints were part of the equation in
getting the film made.
"We had money but we had to pay everybody scale. We really wanted to work
on this," said Mr. Disney of his film. "Sure, they (the big-name actors in
the film) want to get paid, but they really wanted to give work and make [the
film] work more than anything else. So that was really gratifying.
And the goodwill behind it -- which originates from Regina -- it has just
permeated the whole thing -- so whatever happens with the financial [returns at
the box office], it's been just a fantastic experience." It's "a
beautiful thing to see how awareness and hopefully some real change can result
from an individual's choice," said the director, citing the passing of the baton
from Ms. Kelly to her influential pastor at her church in Hearn to the ACLU.
"We've taken it and we've made it into a movie and now we pass it on to the
The real-life subject and heroine of "American Violet" recognized the collective
of people who made her difficult fight a little bit less lonely. "I cannot
tell you where I'd be without the backing of the ACLU and the production company
coming in, you know, because that's my voice . . . I might still be in prison
somewhere. It's so much more than me," said Regina Kelly, citing the
supporters of her cause.
To say that one can't fight City Hall? "That's not true at all," Ms. Kelly
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