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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today we remember. We remember the killings at Columbine High School. And we speak to an educator who asked if teaching empathy can help stop the violence. But first we remember an injustice and tell you about a new film that brings a painful true story to life. At its heart, this story takes on another of this country's ongoing dilemmas: A criminal justice system that seems biased against the poor and vulnerable. In 2002, filmmaker Bill Haney was driving home when he heard this piece on National Public Radio.

Unidentified Man: Twenty-five year old Regina Kelly says she will never forget the night that police showed up at the restaurant where she waited tables and handcuffed her in front of her manager and her customers. Kelly had never been in trouble before. And she was stunned and mortified that the police were making this kind of example of her because of speeding tickets.

MARTIN: The police said Regina Kelly was accused of something a lot more serious than tickets: selling drugs near a school. But Kelly had done no such thing. She had been arrested solely on the word of a known drug addict and thief who was trying to catch a break. But Kelly, unlike two dozen others caught up in the same trap, refused to plead guilty though she spent three long weeks in jail away from her four children before she was released.

Bill Haney says he cried when he heard Regina's story. But he did more than that. He went on to make a movie based on what took place in Hearne, Texas. That movie is "American Violet," which premiered this weekend. One of the costars of the film is award winning actress Alfre Woodard. Woodard plays the role of Alma, the mother of the character based on Regina Kelly. Alfre Woodard joins us now to talk about her role in the film. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ALFRE WOODARD (Actress): Oh, I'm happy to be able to join you.

MARTIN: You know the trick of a film that's based on an issue is making sure that the people come through as well as the issue. So I wanted to ask how did you stick to the humanity of the character of Alma's dilemma and not make her somebody that people would just get sick of because - you know what? Your daughter is trying to do the right thing, stand up for principle and so forth and here you are, you know being a sell out and a Tom and all that, do you know what I mean? How did you make her somebody that people wouldn't be disgusted by?

Ms. WOODARD: Well, first of all, I wouldn't care whether people were attracted to Alma or not, that's not my job. My job is to find Alma's reality. And whether I agree with a character or not is completely beside the point. As a matter of fact, if you know I agree or disagree with the character, I'm not doing my work. What I have to do is look at the script, see the circumstances and say okay what would have happened to this person for them to have this line of thought. And also to know that nobody wakes up in a day going, you know, I'm going to be to be as backward as I can. I'm going to be the biggest jerk I can be, or whatever it is. Everybody thinks they're doing the right thing.

(Soundbite of the movie, "American Violet")

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma) Dee. Everybody pleads and nobody's ever guilty.

Ms. NICOLE BEHARIE (Actor): (as Dee) (unintelligible) mama.

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma) You be home with your girl.

Ms. BEHARIE: (as Dee) They throw me out the apartment, I lose my food stamps, the money for Sharonda's(ph) medicine…

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma) You're going to lose all that anyway if you go to prison.

Ms. BEHARIE: (as Dee) Didn't you always say the truth will set you free?

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma) Girl, that's in the after-life. God care about the truth. The DA don't give a (censored) about the truth. Lock (unintelligible) (censored) up to Judgment Day.

Ms. WOODARD: That's my job as an actor, is to find the line of thinking. And so, I really liked playing Alma because first of all, Alma can't afford the luxury of standing on principles. Like I said, she's very practical. You know, she's got four grandbabies. I wanted her not be that heroic mom saying you know what, I will take care of the kids and I'll do this - it's like no, you have children, you need to get your butt out of jail.

MARTIN: You need to get your butt out of here. So is there something or someone that you used to ground the performance - that you look to?

Ms. WOODARD: Well, you know, my mom's from East Texas. And so I know the dialect, I know the way their bodies move. I know that humor that they have where no matter what's going on, they're kind of crackin' and talking smack in the middle of it. You know, what I mean? So that - at the most - sort of, the most tense times you end up kind of laughing for a second. And then it's that whole thing of people - our people - saying, you have to laugh to keep from crying.

But a lot of times you end up laughing and crying at the same time. But it's a survival mechanism and it, you know, I think it's one of the reasons that we're still standing. So in this film there are a lot of times that people laugh. And it's funny. And you know, it's touching. It's really driven. So if it didn't do all that - that's why we're asking people to pay the money and come and see it, because you're going to get your money's worth, you're going to be entertained. You're going to be touched. In our test on it, people, they will stand up in the middle of it and start applauding or they're laughing or they're shrieking. It's one of those that moves people to be very vocal. So everybody should feel fine. You know, we always tell you to be quiet in the cinema - but you can do what you want to in this one.

MARTIN: Really.

Ms. WOODARD: But most people are surprised to know that this is still happening.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. Do you think that this whole issue with African-Americans and Latinos and the criminal justice system is an ongoing sore in American public life? I mean, survey after survey shows that African-Americans - and to a lesser extent Latinos - have this ongoing distrust of the criminal justice system. And they have their reasons. Do you think that most of your peers in Hollywood, for example, know about this?

Ms. WOODARD: No, they don't. But my peers in Hollywood, I mean, they're not the important thing, no they don't know because they are regular Americans just like everybody else and it hasn't touched their lives some way. And so one thing that helps with creating an entertainment that really puts the viewer in the seat of really imagining that it can happen to them I think is what brings it home for Americans. We want it to become something that people realize that it must change. Not only because it's happening to poor people and people who don't have means but everybody's struggling now. I don't know who can afford an attorney to get themselves out of a wrongful accusation.

MARTIN: Well, to that point I'm curious about why this particular issue engages you so much. There are so many things that one could be moved by, why do you think you're so moved by this issue?

Ms. WOODARD: I am moved by injustice. My father once said to me, not once but many times - his philosophy of life was it doesn't matter if you've got a feast laid if any of your neighbors - and that means anybody two blocks from you, two miles, or 200 miles from you and further - if your neighbor's children are hungry - if they're going to bed hungry. I have an impatience with injustice. When anybody's liberties are compromised, it compromises all the other liberties, your liberty as well. So that's why it's the right thing to do but it's also, like Alma would say, it's damn practical.

MARTIN: It's true but it's also the case that - just from what you're telling me that this particular issue about the way, this abuse of power - what a lot of people call prosecutorial abuse - is just something that has stuck in your craw for a while. And I was just wondering why. Because there is just a lot of things that you could be engaged with.

Ms. WOODARD: And I am engaged in a lot of things as well. But the things that I'm drawn towards, the things that I feel - not just a stand but also a working relationship with - are things that you would call the non-sexy things, the things that aren't safe. Because everybody - and not to put anything down - but everybody can go for walk with thousands of people. Everybody can you know, wear ribbons, everybody - but when you are alone and there is nobody to save you, there's no law, there's nobody to back it up and it's you and you're taking that stand against the power structure. You're standing there, small, in your bare feet in the dirt and you say no. Those are the people that we all must take a stand with so that nobody ever stands alone.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us I'm speaking with Alfre Woodard, who is starring in the new film "American Violet," it opened this weekend. The film talks about this - it's this David and Goliath battle of Dee versus the DA. But it also deals with some stuff within the family. And I also want to play another short clip. One of the conflicts is the father of Dee's girls is - Dee doesn't particularly want him to see them but Alma allows the father to see the girls despite her wishes. But then Alma does take a stand for her daughter. And I want to play a short clip, here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Violet")

Ms. ALFRE WOODARD (Actor): (as Alma Roberts) Hey, have you lost your (censored) mind?

Ms. NICOLE BEHARIE (Actor): (as Dee Roberts) Momma.

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma Roberts) Put that baby (unintelligible)

Mr. WILL PATTON (Actor): (as Sam Conroy) I'll deal with that.

Ms. WOODARD: (as Dee Roberts) I will knock you out.

Mr. PATTON: (as Sam Conroy) (unintelligible) swinging.

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma Roberts) Come on.

Mr. PATTON: (as Sam Conroy) What you going to do with that?

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma Roberts) I'm going to knock your head off.

Mr. PATTON: (as Sam Conroy) Go ahead, go ahead.

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma Roberts) (unintelligible)

Mr. PATTON: (as Sam Conroy) Your crazy. I wish you would (unintelligible) Get off me.

MARTIN: And they're fighting because the father is trying to take the girls and Alma's not going to let him. And I wanted to ask you about that, first of all, A, is it fun going over the top like that?

Ms. WOODARD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But B, do you ever worry that, you know, the whole stereotype, you know, crazy black woman going off on the man, you know, you know what I mean?

Ms. WOODARD: You'll see, when you see the whole film is that and Xzibit plays Darrell, the dad. My idea for Alma is that, Alma feels like at least he's there. At least Darrell is there. Because most of the daddies aren't home in this environment where our story takes place. But when she does go off on him -so she gives him his props all the way through - she goes off on him the night that he's drunk and he comes - he shoves her to the floor. That's when you cross the line. Cross the line with a momma when you start hitting and she comes with a baseball bat…

MARTIN: She's ready to go.

Ms. WOODARD: I tell you, when I first broke through the door I said something, this was improvise, I said something so, so like street and it's on with that bat that Xzibit, he literally started laughing. He hit the floor, he says, oh no, Alfre Woodard said she's going to blank me up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WOODARD: So on the next three takes, we`would get really riled up and I'd bust the door down, then we'd look at each other and just start laughing but it was a - so it is fun to, it is fun to go off. Because it's not good for him to go off in life like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But you can do it and get paid a little something.

Ms. WOODARD: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: But you said in an interview once, I like playing the bad ones.

Ms. WOODARD: Yeah. People might do bad things or they may make bad decisions, but they're people. And a lot of times I think in portraying, I don't think actors really find the people because nobody is born a crackhead say, who are they, you find the character and then you add the substance. I like finding who people are and then unleashing that. You have to bring the person fully formed from that person's point of view, their own humanity.

MARTIN: Alfre Woodard stars in the new film "American Violet." It opened this weekend. She was kind enough to join us from NPR West. Alfre Woodard, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WOODARD: Oh, I'm happy to be able to.

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