In A Texas Town, A Film Premiere Hits Home

Correction April 22, 2009

We said, "Kelly was one of more than two dozen public housing residents, nearly all of them black, who were targeted by the Robert County District Attorney, then arrested and charged with selling cocaine." Hearne, Texas, is actually in Robertson County.

Beharie and Woodard i i

hide captionIn American Violet, Nicole Beharie (right) plays Dee Roberts, a woman unfairly targeted in a drug raid. Her character is based on Hearne resident Regina Kelley.

Scott Saltzman/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Beharie and Woodard

In American Violet, Nicole Beharie (right) plays Dee Roberts, a woman unfairly targeted in a drug raid. Her character is based on Hearne resident Regina Kelley.

Scott Saltzman/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Tim Blake Nelson i i

hide captionTim Blake Nelson plays David Cohen, an ACLU lawyer who helps Dee with her lawsuit.

Scott Saltzman/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Tim Blake Nelson

Tim Blake Nelson plays David Cohen, an ACLU lawyer who helps Dee with her lawsuit.

Scott Saltzman/Samuel Goldwyn Films

The film American Violet hits theaters April 17, bringing the racial tensions of small-town East Texas to screens around the country.

The movie is based on the story of Regina Kelley, a woman caught up in a misguided drug raid that took place in Hearne, Texas, about 120 miles north of Houston. More than two dozen public housing residents — most of them black — were arrested and charged with selling cocaine.

As national civil rights organizations got involved, it became clear that the arrests were based on tips from an unreliable informant — a drug addict. Most of the charges were dropped. A civil-rights lawsuit followed.

Last month, American Violet was screened for the residents of Hearne in the auditorium of St. Mary's Catholic Church. There was no red carpet, but apropos of the subject of the movie, there were rumors that the Ku Klux Klan was going to show up.

Armed security guards stood watch, though nothing out of the ordinary happened.

The premiere was well attended, though getting the word out was not easy. Father Robert Herald, who hosted the event, said someone dressed in a SWAT uniform advised local merchants to take down the movie's advertisements.

"They were told it might go better if their poster was removed," Herald said.

But rumors and attempts at intimidation would not keep many in Hearne's black community from attending the premiere.

Regina Kelley was there, and amid the tension and the excitement, she shook her head in disbelief that her life had become a major motion picture.

And she did not shy away from talking about the raid that put her in the limelight. The police, she said, were often in her housing project.

"This is something that's been going on since I was a little girl," Kelley said.

About a quarter of the audience at the showing was white. Asked for their thoughts after watching the film, some older white attendees just waved at reporters and walked away.

Others, including a man named Dale Willard, were more open about their feelings. He said he liked the movie and its message.

"What they did was wrong," he said, referring to the drug raid in 2000. Still, Willard said he was happy that the movie's producers kept his town's name out of the film.

"It's nice they changed the name, and all that, but we all known that it was Hearne," he said.

Reaction to American Violet among the black community was overwhelmingly positive. Life-long Hearne resident James Taylor was hopeful.

"Maybe now, people will open their eyes to what's going on in these smaller towns," he said.

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