Interview: Writer Bill Haney, Regina Kelly on the Struggle, Uplift in ‘American Violet’
CHICAGO – In a previous interview, director Tim Disney of the new film ‘American Violet’ called his film one where “change begins, and change is possible, when individuals make choices and stand behind them.”
The second set of interviews for the film is with screenwriter Bill Haney, and the real-life inspiration for the Dee Roberts character in ‘American Violet’, Regina Kelly. Through the six year odyssey to get this story to screen, Haney chronicled Kelly’s struggle and the struggle of many of the victims of America’s “War on Drugs”, replete with laws that sometimes are designed to unfairly incarcerate large groups of poor minorities and African American citizens.
Photo credit: Scott Saltzman, Samuel Goldwyn Films
Effecting all Americans, the story of Dee Roberts in the film symbolizes the unfairness inherent in the system. It is Robert’s courage to make the choice to stand up to this injustice that is the heart and uplift of the movie.
HollywoodChicago.com explored the background of the inspiration behind the film in the following conversation with Bill Haney and Regina Kelly.
HollywoodChicago.com: What are the differences and distinctions between your story in reality and the fictional portrayal in “American Violet”?
Regina Kelly: The difference is that some of the film was fictionalized, but for the most part I can relate to it. It was in part my story and it was based on me, but it also is the story of millions of people around the world suffering the same injustice.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com
HC: One the most surprising elements of the story is how short a time ago – in 2000 – the injustice of the arrest and trials went down. Is this sort of a warning to fellow Americans that the profiling and segregating of African Americans continues even in a post-civil rights sense?
Bill Haney: One of things that shocked me about the court cases that made up the root of the story is the extraordinary hideous effects of the war on drugs. How is plays off a racism that is concealed, but hasn’t gone away.
There is a curious coincidence in the Jim Crow laws being overturned in the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and then Nixon declaring the “war on drugs” shortly thereafter. The number of incarcerations in 1971 was 200,000. Today it is 2.3 million.
There are 8 million Americans in the criminal justice system – either on probation, parole or in prison – it’s wildly disproportionate with people of color, people of low economic means and in the South.
And this have had tremendous voting implications. Almost 4 million Americans, because of their felony status, were not allowed to vote in the 2000 election, which we all know was decided by a few hanging chads. And even in the most recent 2008 election, there were 5 million disenfranchised voters.
A skeptical person would think there was a correlation – that the use of the drugs laws were in place to create systemic voter disenfranchisement. That idea was shocking to me as a American.
HC: What is the main problem for the African American populations in small town America? What advantages and disadvantages do they have by living, especially in poverty, in a small town?
Kelly: The disadvantage is our limited resources. When you are faced with a problem that is shown in ‘American Violet’, you are forced many times to get a court appointed lawyer, who doesn’t have your best interests at hand. He gets paid very little and has little motivation.
Without resources you can’t pay a lawyer who will fight for you, so many times in court-appointed situations you will take a plea bargain, even though you may not be guilty, just to get out of the case.
Photo credit: Scott Saltzman, Samuel Goldwyn Films
HC: Was was the symbolic decision behind using the trial of Bush vs. Gore in the background of the situation for Dee Roberts? Was it Bush’s position as a Texas governor that was part of that particular point?
Haney: The first was to set the film in time. The actual election in which George Bush gained the presidency was the one prompting the “tough on crime” district attorney to do his annual drug law round-up of poor African Americans to demonstrate his credentials to the electorate.
The second thing was the shocking lack of principle, particularly in Texas. Texas has the highest incarceration rate in a country that has the highest in the world. The state proudly trumpets this. The way that drug task forces, who do most of the arresting, are funded is through federal money called burn money allocated to the states, and the governors get to decide what to do with it.
So then Governor Bush, in the midst of a presidential campaign where he was suggesting a complete opposition to the notion of quotas in affirmation action, was effectively using quotas to allocate drug law money in Texas. If you convict 30 people a month, your county is most likely to get new police cars, more officers and better pay for those officers.
This is a troubling use of federal money to create quotas that incarcerates people, sometimes innocent people.
HC: Despite rough conditions and sub standard housing, there was a substantial sense of community portrayed in this film. How important is the collective energy of community and religion in confronting the evils of unjust laws and racial prejudice?
Kelly: I’ve lived in low income housing, and I knew everyone around me, and it’s not as rough and negative as everyone thinks, even though it’s low income. It’s like a big family, we all take care of each other, we all lean on each other and we look out for each other.
Because of the limited resources in that type of situation, my religion plays a big part in everything. I was brought up in a church and I brought my children up in a church and I believe in it to fullest, it’s where my security comes from.
HC: As the writer of this film and an observer of the human condition, what do you feel is the most insidious emotion or absolution expressed therein – the hopelessness of the maligned underclass or the crass insecurity of bigotry?
Haney: What you are referring to as the “maligned underclass” doesn’t feel as hopeless to me, and it’s partially because of the roots of spirituality. The connection to God, the connection to each other, can create a warmth that can be missing from American suburban life.
What I find most disturbing was the callousness of the people who have plenty. This is a Judeo-Christian society. If there is one thing that is central in the religions that undergird American culture and world religions is the need to be caring to the least among us. And we know who the least among us are. But in general within small town life, the people who are well off are very comfortable perpetuating a system that keeps them well off, even in the knowledge that it creates painful effects to the vulnerable in their community.
HC: Why do you think there continues to be a basic misunderstanding gap between this country’s white and African American populations and how do you think President Obama’s election helps to bridge the gap?
Kelly: I think there is a gap because everyone is stuck in their own world. You rarely meet people who want to get outside the box that they are in and want to see the way the other side is living.
White people have their problems, too, just like black America. We might not have the same problems, but we all have problems, we are all one in my eyes.
We are still the same people, living in different worlds. We need to find a way to connect and see that it is all one race, if you ask me.
As far as President Obama is concerned, so far, so good. I pray that this film connects to him, that he can watch it and see the struggle that everyone goes through. It’s not just my struggle, it’s everyone’s struggle. We have to stop the war on drugs and I hope this becomes one of his policies.
HC: Finally, what kind of word-of-mouth would you want for this film that you wrote?
Haney: First, it is dramatically compelling and engaging. Second, the performances of the actors, especially the first time lead Nicole Beharie, are just breathtaking. Third, it’s a story that actually matters, about our country, that effects all Americans.
There are 13 million Americans who are convicted felons, 60 million who are related to them. This war on drugs, and the carnage associated with it, is costing this country 100 billion dollars a year and the lives of millions of our citizens and neighbors.