Black History Month film examines racial prejudice

‘American Violet’ showed racial bias within the justice system. (Tim Lee/Photo Editor)
‘American Violet’ showed racial bias within the justice system. (Tim Lee/Photo Editor)

In celebration of Black History Month, the college’s Zeta Sigma chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority hosted a movie screening and panel discussion to explore the issue of racial bias in American drug raids.

Approximately 25 students and faculty members came out to see “American Violet” and listen to the three panelists discuss their thoughts on both the provincial and universal issues examined by the film.

“I saw American Violet over break and thought it was really influential,” Maurisa Thomas, senior history and secondary education major and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, said. “I’ve actually seen things like what happens in this movie, and I see how many lives it affects. We think we’re so distant, but we’re really not.”

“American Violet,” released in April 2009, tells the story of Dee Roberts, a 24-year-old single mother wrongly accused of selling cocaine after a widespread drug raid in her small Texas town.

Faced with the prospect of accepting either a plea bargain for a crime she did not commit or the daunting task of fighting the charges in court, the protagonist is despondent. That is, until the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gets involved, bringing her case to the national forefront by suing the district attorney for racial prejudice and unlawful arrest practices. The case resulted in the dismissal of the Texas law permitting the word of a single informant to send an accused person to jail.

The movie, while not claiming to be a documentary, is nonetheless based on true events. The town of Melody is based on Hearne, Texas, a small city in which 31.2 percent of the population was considered living below the poverty line at the time of the drug raids, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

The story of Dee Roberts is directly based on the story of Regina Kelley, a single woman in Hearn swept unfairly into the drug raid and falsely accused of selling cocaine. Kelley fought back against the district attorney, with the help of ACLU lawyers, and won, resulting in the real-life abandonment of the Texas single-informant law depicted in the movie.

Speaking about the film’s relevance to drug raids in New Jersey were Rev. Garrett Thomas, a pastor in Somerville, N.J., and Shirley Tyler, a retired correctional officer from the N.J. Department of Corrections. Dave McAllister, adjunct history and African American studies professor at the College, spoke about the film’s broader implications concerning race relations and the “revolving door” that is America’s prison system.

“You have to get big cases like this brought to the public attention,” Tyler said. “Otherwise, stuff like this continues to happen.”

Rev. Thomas encouraged members of the audience dissatisfied with the current state of the court system in America to get involved.

“If you take anything from this discussion tonight, let it be this get involved,” he said. “If you don’t like the way something’s running, get in the middle of it and change it.”

McAllister said though the film’s protagonist was able to exact a lot of change in her state’s government, the fight for a universally fair justice system is far from over.

“It’s not just one segment of the population that needs to be fighting,” McAllister said. “It’s everyone.”