ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
this brilliant bio-pic effectively illustrates the likely fallout visited upon a law-abiding but unsophisticated
person like Dee up against an impersonal legal justice system unconcerned with the truth. For when she is
falsely accused of distributing narcotics and held on $70,000 bail, the ripple effect of the ensuing nightmare
means that she stands to lose her dignity, her job, her savings and custody of her children in fast order.
Film Review of American Violet by Kam Williams
Racial Profiling and Malicious Prosecution in Texas
On November 2, 2000, drug enforcement agents executed a sweep of the black community in the tiny town of Hearne, Texas, arresting 27 African-American residents, including a grieving father who was taken into custody during the funeral of his young daughter. The bench warrants had been issued by the county on the word of an informant who claimed to have purchased crack from each of the accused, despite the fact that the ex-con was the sole eyewitness, had a history of mental illness, and was himself facing criminal charges at the time.
Nonetheless, The District Attorney aggressively pursued convictions in all of the cases, generally succeeding since most of the defendants couldnt afford to make bail, let alone hire a lawyer. What generally transpired was that after languishing in jail for several months while awaiting trial, many succumbed to the pressure of their court-appointed public defender to plead guilty to a lesser charge in return for leniency, rather than face the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence.
In actuality, these unfortunate folks from the projects had all simply been victimized by a state-sanctioned scheme to incarcerate innocent African-Americans. Ultimately, the ACLU would clear their names with the help of one of the defendants, an intrepid woman willing to risk further incurring the wrath of the local authorities by testifying against them in a lawsuit proving a color-coded pattern of malicious prosecution.
The intimate details of her lengthy ordeal, set against the backdrop of that landmark case, is the subject of American Violet, a gripping dramatization of the events surrounding the sad tragedy which ruined many a family in Hearne. Directed by Tim Disney (Blessed Art Thou), great-nephew of the legendary Walt Disney, the movie stars newcomer Nicole Beharie as Dee Roberts, a 24 year-old single-mother with four daughters whose life comes apart at the seams when she finds herself suddenly ensnared in a dragnet designed to rid the town of black people entirely.
We see that before being framed for a crime she didnt commit, Dee had been getting along if not exactly flourishing, caring for her girls while trying to save enough money from waitressing to study cosmetology someday. But afterwards, shes soon without the financial resources or the emotional support needed to handle the situation.
In matter-of-fact fashion, this brilliant bio-pic effectively illustrates the likely fallout visited upon a law-abiding but unsophisticated person like Dee up against an impersonal legal justice system unconcerned with the truth. For when she is falsely accused of distributing narcotics and held on $70,000 bail, the ripple effect of the ensuing nightmare means that she stands to lose her dignity, her job, her savings and custody of her children in fast order.
Besides the powerful performance of Ms. Beharie, a Juilliard grad, American Violet features a smorgasbord of equally-engaging efforts on the part of a talented supporting cast topped by such veteran thespians as Alfre Woodard, Charles S. Dutton, Will Patton, Tim Blake Nelson, Xzibit and Michael OKeefe. A movie which earns high marks simply for being the first feature film with the guts to tackle the subject of racial profiling in such an honest fashion, especially given the similar allegations leveled at the neighboring town of Tenaha just last month.
Fair warning: Do yourself and family a favor and steer clear of that racist oasis if you happen to be black and passing through Texas.
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Excellent (4 stars) / Rated PG-13 for profanity, ethnic slurs, violence, drug references and mature themes. / Running time: 102 minutes
Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films / To see a trailer for American Violet, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qv8Jq09qU1Q
To see a news report about Tenaha, Texas, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-I80hda3IRI
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The American Violet Interview with Kam Williams
A recent grad of the acting program at the prestigious Juilliard School, Nicole Beharie made her screen debut just last fall in The Express, a bittersweet bio-pic about the abbreviated life of Ernie Davis, the first African-American recipient of the Heisman Trophy. Now, in just her second film, the promising young thespian has already handled her first leading role.
In American Violet, a riveting drama based on a real-life case of racial profiling and malicious prosecution in a tiny Texas town, she plays a single-mother of four falsely accused of dealing drugs. Here, the emerging ingénue reflects upon her work in the movie which co-stars Alfre Woodard and Charles S. Dutton.
KW: Thanks so much for the time.
NB: Im grateful that you wanted to speak with me.
KW: The honor is all mine, after I witnessed what a superb job of acting you did in this film. What interested you in the role?
NB: This particular script moved me. I had a dream about it, and when I went in for the call back, I met with the director Tim Disney, and the writer Bill Haney. When they told me about their investment in the project and Regina Kellys actual story, and how she had cooperated with the ACLU, I was just moved by them as human beings. I knew right then and there that I wanted to collaborate with them in some way. I told them at the second audition that if they didnt want to cast me as the lead, I was willing to play another part because I cared that much about the story. But the audition went well, and things worked out in my favor.
KW: Did you have a chance to meet the woman you were portraying, Regina Kelly?
NB: Of course I got to spend a lot of time with her, although we didnt get to meet until on set. I also got to spend time with numerous people from the town in Texas who had gone through the raids, characters you see in the film on the periphery.
KW: How did she react to seeing her life story being made?
NB: I think she was probably a little bit nervous initially watching me be her, wondering who is this girl who doesnt even look like me.
KW: Was she really a single-mom with four children?
NB: Yes, she has four daughters the same ages as the girls in the film, the whole nine yards. Most of the story is pretty accurate.
KW: Does she still live in Hearne, Texas?
NB: She recently moved, but they did a screening of the film in Hearne a few weeks ago, right across from the District Attorneys office.
KW: Where did you grow up?
NB: I was born in West Palm Beach, Florida, and spent time in South Carolina and Atlanta. I did a lot of moving around because my father was in the foreign service. So, I also lived in Nigeria, Panama and Washington, DC. I was up and down the East Coast, and in a few random countries. [Laughs]
KW: When did you develop an interest in acting?
NB: Moving around all the time, you just have to keep yourself entertained. And I was kind of a bully, even though Im tiny, 5 2. As a child, Id boss other kids around and dress my little brother up, just putting on shows, singing and dressing up. I recently found a photo of myself in front of my mothers closet, trying on her nylons and a feathered boa. So, I think storytelling was always underneath my skin, burning to get out.
KW: What type of training did you get before Juilliard?
NB: When I lived in Orangeburg, South Carolina, I ended up attending a school for the arts in Greenville. It was a better school and a better situation. I guess my ticket to get in there was acting. I wasnt planning on becoming an actress. I just wanted to go to a better school. But I fell in love with it, and my senior year I applied to Juilliard, NYU, Carnegie Mellon and other schools with theater programs. I got in, took the risk, moved to New York and it kinda worked out.
KW: I guess you did a lot of Shakespeare at Juilliard.
NB: I loved doing all the plays, including Shakespeare, which is wonderful for honing your instrument. I wouldnt say Shakespeare was my #1 favorite, but you do feel very alive when its done well. Being in front of the camera is nice, too. I think theyre both beautiful types of performing calling for different levels of energy. I also enjoy singing in musicals.
KW: Watching American Violet, I thought I saw another Juilliard graduate in the cast, Anthony Mackie, playing the informant, but his name wasnt in the credits.
NB: Yes, he and Tim Blake Nelson, another Juilliard grad, are both in the picture.
KW: You had a great supporting cast, including Alfre Woodard, Charles S. Dutton, Will Patton, Xzibit and Michael OKeefe. How was it working alongside so many seasoned pros?
NB: It was daunting. I was constantly reminding myself that they did cast me. I remember being nervous out of mind during the first reading. I love acting and Im always doing readings, but this time, I knew the stakes were high. And after working with them, I took away so much from the experience because everyone was so generous with me. Michael reached out to me. Will took me to see some independent films. And Alfre was an absolute jewel.
KW: Well, I think the camera likes you, you have a natural chemistry and powerful presence. I noticed you the first time you came on screen in The Express. I sort of thought, hey, who is that?
NB: Thank you. I skipped my graduation at Juilliard to do that film.
KW: Your debut was the scene when you walked into the party with a girlfriend and the two of you were introduced to Ernie Davis.
NB: Wow! Youve got quite a memory.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
NB: Thats an awesome question. What do I want you to ask me? Hmm Ill have to think about that.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
NB: Yes, I think this whole process has you constantly facing your fears and being courageous. But its also exciting.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
NB: Yeah, Im really enjoying my time, and my family is really excited for me. I was raised by a single-mother, and my sister was a single-mom, too, so I think thats one of the things that help me understand my role in American Violet. And having them see the fruits of my labors is really exciting. I just feel really blessed and humbled, even that you want to talk with me right now.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
NB: Right now, Im reading a spiritual essay by Ralph Wood Emerson, “Self Reliance,” and Strange Pilgrims, a collection of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to?
NB: Im always listening to Nina Simone.
KW: One of her songs is in the movie at the end.
NB: Yes, and I didnt know that when I first saw it. That thrilled me. That made me so happy. It was so perfect. Besides Nina Simone, I have some Common going on, some Joni Mitchell, and Beyoncé when Im working out.
KW: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Whos at the top of your hero list?
NB: My mom, Colleen.
KW: Teri Emerson would like to know when was the last time you had a good belly laugh?
NB: After my grandmother had a heart attack and all my relatives came back home. We did everything in our power to lift her spirits, and it did something for me too. My sister absolutely cracks me up. I was rolling on the floor.
KW: How is your grandmother doing now?
NB: Much better, thanks.
KW: The Laz Alonso question: Is there anything your fans can do to help you?
NB: By just giving me a chance. Im new. I dont know that I have a fan base yet.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
NB: As an ever-changing person, like the weather and the seasons. I want to have room to grow and morph and learn as Im figuring it all out.
KW: Have you thought about a question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
NB: Yes, Its sort of abstract, but I would like to get creative feedback at www.MySpace.com/NicoleBeharie about the film in the form of words, music or any other artistic expression from people who have seen it.
KW: Well, Nicole, thanks again and best of luck in the future.
To see a trailer for American Violet, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qv8Jq09qU1Q
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By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 12 April 2009