The Popcorn Reel

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/

A Mother's Fight For Truth, Justice And The "American Violet" Way
By Omar P.L. Moore/    SHARE
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.

Undaunted, 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 justice.

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 situation.     

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 story." 

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 of Melody.

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 mother.'"

"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 Arihanna, 9.

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 audience."

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 said.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2009.  All Rights Reserved. 



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