In 2000, in the small Texas town of Hearne, Regina Kelly was arrested for selling drugs. A poor single mom with four young children, Kelly was one of many arrested that day who were innocent. But her innocence was inconsequential to the local district attorney, an official bent on carrying out the war on drugs with little regard for collateral damage.
Kelly faced intense pressure to plead guilty, but instead chose to fight the charges at great risk to her own well-being. American Violet, which opens in limited release this week, tells a harrowing story based on Kelly's experience and that of others in her community. CT Movies recently talked with Kelly and the film's writer, Bill Haney, about her decision to fight the charges, the sustaining power of faith, the legal changes her case sparked, and the ongoing war on drugs.
Regina, when you were arrested, the odds were stacked against you. You couldn't afford an attorney and everyone—including your mom—advised it was in your best interest to plead guilty. Why did you choose to fight those charges?
Regina Kelly: The [drug task force] raids on our community had been going on for most of my life, and finally I got swept up in it. I just felt like I had to fight this because I knew I was innocent. And I had to prove to my kids that your freedom is worth standing up for.
While the movie focuses on my story, I'm not the only one who stood up. A lot of people stood up and said we're not going to go through this anymore; we're not going to take this. My mom only wanted me to plead because she knew the challenges I would be facing if I tried to go up against the DA. She was only trying to look out for my best interests. But after I explained what I'm going to do, she was like, "Okay, I trust you."
The movie also touches on the support you got from a local pastor. What is your involvement with the church like?
Kelly: My faith was everything to me during this ordeal. And Reverend Ralph played a tremendous role in helping me along through my journey. He was always there and he helped me so much. He was someone I could talk to about my struggles who would listen and pray for me. His entire church took us in and it was like a big family. I couldn't have asked for anything more.
Bill, how did you hear about Regina's story?
Bill Haney: I was listening to the radio in rush hour traffic in Boston. Wade Goodwin from NPR had heard about Regina's story, and I found that as I listened to this story about a young mother with four young children forced to choose between her principles and her family, I found myself starting to cry. I was so upset I couldn't drive. I actually pulled over and called the ACLU who was then representing Regina and said I wanted to find out if there was some way I could help.
When the ACLU told me how many hundreds of thousands of Americans are going through the same sort of painful experience that Regina was going through—the long hideous arms of the war of drugs and the consequences on millions of Americans—I became determined to tell an authentic story about it. That began with working with Regina and her pastor and her mother, spending time in the project where she lived, and going through a series of cases that the ACLU and other nonprofits had been supporting. I tried to distill those stories in a way that met the confines of cinema, but was still rooted in the authentic experience of people like Regina. When the film opens, it will be roughly 6½ years since I began this project, and nine years since Regina was first arrested.