In A Texas Town, A Film Premiere Hits Home The new film American Violet is based on the true story of a misguided drug raid in Hearne, Texas, and the legal battles that followed. Hearne residents attended an advance screening — and NPR's Wade Goodwyn was there to catch their reactions.
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In A Texas Town, A Film Premiere Hits Home

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In A Texas Town, A Film Premiere Hits Home

In A Texas Town, A Film Premiere Hits Home

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When the movie "American Violet" opens on Friday, it will seem familiar to many NPR listeners - because it's based on an NPR story. The film's producer was driving home when he heard Wade Goodwyn's report on a drug raid in the little town of Hearne, Texas. A woman named Regina Kelley was among those accused of dealing cocaine. She fought back and won, and now a feature film is based on her story.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn went back to Hearne for a screening of "American Violet."

GOODWYN: It's a beautiful evening and inside the auditorium of Hearne's St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, people are buzzing with excitement. It's a Hollywood premiere East Texas-style. There's no red carpet but there are rumors that the Ku Klux Klan is on its way. The studio has hired armed guards just in case.

Mr. ROBERT HERALD (Pastor): It now being six minutes after six, and some anxious studio-type people looking to have this evening's presentation begin momentarily…

GOODWYN: Father Robert Herald has been ministering in East Texas for most of his life, but he's been a pastor in Hearne just two years. By agreeing to rent his auditorium for the movie premiere, the good father is learning a lesson.

Mr. HERALD: I've been criticized as being a dupe of the ACLU, of not understanding the sociopolitical context of the character of Robertson County and Hearne.

GOODWYN: The district attorney depicted so unsympathetically in the film is still the DA here, and when Father Herald handed out posters advertising the movie premiere to local merchants, a few days later he noticed they were missing from the storefront windows. He says somebody from the DA's office, dressed in a SWAT uniform, had dropped by.

Mr. HERALD: They had been visited and were told it might go better if their poster was removed.

GOODWYN: Such is the context for "American Violet," a fictionalized retelling of the story of Regina Kelley. Kelley 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.

Kelley says the police raided the public housing project in Hearne on a regular basis.

Ms. REGINA KELLEY: This is something that's been going on since I was a little girl.

GOODWYN: Kelley shakes her head in disbelief that part of her life is now a major motion picture.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Violet")

Ms. NICOLE BEHARIE (Actress): (as Dee Roberts) I did not do anything.

Ms. ALFRE WOODARD (Actress): (as Alma Roberts) Dee, it ain't always about you. You got kids to take care of.

Ms. BEHARIE: (as Dee Roberts) Mama, these police been raiding this project since I was a kid.

GOODWYN: Playing Regina Kelley in the movie is newcomer Nicole Beharie, and she puts down her marker as an actor to watch. In this scene, Beharie's wrongly-imprisoned character argues with her mother, played by Alfre Woodard, over whether the young woman should cave in, plead guilty, take the probation offered by the district attorney and not get involved with the ACLU.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Violet")

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma Roberts) You can't beat Beckett.

Ms. BEHARIE: (as Dee Roberts) He wants to put me in prison for 16 years.

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma Roberts) Beckett don't care nothing about you. You take the plea, he will leave you alone. You're saving yourself (unintelligible) nobody ever did.

Ms. BEHARIE: (as Dee Roberts) Why should I have to keep to myself? Do you think it's gonna stop 'cause I plea guilty?

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma Roberts) Excuse me, why is that any of your business?

Ms. BEHARIE: (as Dee Roberts) After what they done to me, mama, they made it my business.

Ms. WOODARD: (as Alma Roberts) Dee, Dee, wait a minute.

Ms. BEHARIE: (as Dee Roberts) No, mama.

GOODWYN: Even though the story of "American Violet" is cloaked in the anonymity of Piney Woods of East Texas, it quickly becomes clear lives are at stake. Character actor Will Patton gives a strong supporting performance as a local white attorney who's been asked by the ACLU to help.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Violet")

Mr. WILL PATTON (Actor): (as Sam Conroy) What do you need local counsel for? Don't the ACLU have enough lawyers?

Unidentified Man: We need inside into the local justice system.

Mr. PATTON: (as Sam Conroy) It's simple: The DA decides what he wants, the cops go and get it for him and the judges bless what they have done.

Unidentified Man: Are you hostile toward this case for some reason, Mr. Conroy.

Mr. PATTON: (as Sam Conroy) You're asking me to sue everybody I've ever met for racial discrimination now. You know where we are down here? You might as well as me to stick a shotgun up my (censored) and blow my head off.

Unidentified Man: Well, that's very colorful.

GOODWYN: The audience for the premiere at St. Mary's was about three-quarters African-American and watched with wonder and enthusiasm as the lives of people they know played out on the screen. James Taylor has lived in Hearne all his life.

Mr. JAMES TAYLOR: Maybe now people can open their eyes and realize what's going on in these smaller towns more than just the bigger cities.

GOODWYN: There were some older white couples who, when asked to comment, raised their hands and waved as they walked away. A younger white man, Dale Willard, was one of the few willing to share his reaction.

Mr. DALE WILLARD: It's nice that they changed the name and all that, but we all know it was Hearne. And we all know it was in 2000 and what they did was wrong.

GOODWYN: Did you like the movie?

Mr. WILLARD: Oh, excellent movie. Good script, good actors, great movie.

GOODWYN: Suing local law enforcement for racial discrimination in East Texas is a perilous undertaking. Making a good Hollywood film about it could be just a problematic, but this time it turned out well.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

INSKEEP: And you can find clips from "American Violet" at

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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