This month, we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the award-winning film, AMERICAN VIOLET, written by Bill Haney and directed by Tim Disney. The film chronicles the true story of Regina Kelly and her civil rights battle with the Robertson County District Attorney in Hearne, Texas. Regina's story still inspires today as a triumphant tale of resilience in the face of the systemic discrimination and injustice that Black Americans confront almost daily, then, and now.
Like Erin Brockovich or Karen Silkwood, Regina's story is a powerful example of a woman of modest means – a hardworking mid 20s African American mother of four – that stood up to take a difficult path despite all odds. In 2000, Regina was wrongfully arrested in a drug sweep in her hometown of Hearne, Texas, that was initiated by a paid confidential informant. The District Attorney pressured the informant to give up at least 20 people “to work off” his own infractions, because the DA had received a large federal grant for drug enforcement and needed to generate arrests. The informant pointed to 28 people, nearly all of whom lived in Regina's housing project. He was later found to have used baking soda and water to make fake crack cocaine for use as evidence in support of the cases he fabricated.
Falsely accused in this drug raid, Regina was imprisoned on drug charges, fired, blacklisted, and left with little hope. Her court-appointed lawyers urged her to plead guilty, take probation and get out of jail. She was told that if she didn't plead and instead went to trial, she could face "five to 99 years." Many others from her housing project that were arrested did plead guilty to felony charges despite their innocence – losing access to critical federal housing and childcare aid, and of course their right to vote.
In an incredible tale, Regina decided to fight back. Regina Kelly v. John Paschall was filed by the ACLU on behalf of Regina and 14 other African American residents of Hearne who were rounded up in unlawful paramilitary drug sweeps. Hearne is an East Texas town of roughly 5,000 with a median income of $20,000, where African Americans make up 44 percent of the population. According to the ACLU's complaint, “for the past 15 years, based on the uncorroborated tales of informants, Task Force members annually raid the African American community in eastern Hearne to arrest the residents identified by the confidential informants, resulting in the arrest and harassment of innocent citizens without cause.” In a landmark ruling, the ACLU succeeded in proving racial discrimination by the District Attorney and local police.
Regina's heartening, rousing narrative is one of countless others and still holds relevance today. The number of Texans denied voting rights due to a felony conviction is larger than the disenfranchised populations of 47 other states. Regina's striking decision to stand up for herself and her community galvanized thousands of others to rise up and speak out against the injustice endemic in her small Texas town, and others like it. Her courage, compassion and selflessness still inspire us today, and we are grateful to have had the chance to tell her story.
At Uncommon Production we believe it is essential to continue telling stories like AMERICAN VIOLET that bring attention to injustices and inspire efforts to help achieve equality for all people.
Regina's story of perseverance is over two decades old, but AMERICAN VIOLET still serves as a poignant reminder of the flaws and unfairness inherent in the plea-based legal system. Even today, innocent people are often coerced into pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit, perpetuating racial and economic disparities within the US legal system.
We invite you to watch and share AMERICAN VIOLET to help continue to spread awareness about this important issue.