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Trapped under the law’s thumb

Six years ago, writer-producer Bill Haney was driving home during rush hour in Boston when he heard a National Public Radio story about Regina Kelly, a young African American woman -- a single mother with four daughters -- in the small Texas town of Hearne who was unjustly arrested during a raid on the projects where she lived. She was accused of dealing drugs.

The district attorney gave her the option of either a plea deal -- if she took the deal she wouldn’t be allowed to vote and would lose most of her rights -- or going to jail for 25 years. Instead of conceding, the 24-year-old woman contested the charges and, after they were dismissed, teamed with the ACLU to file a discrimination suit against the D.A. and local police.

“She was basically given a ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ ” says Haney. “I began to cry and started crying so much I couldn’t drive. I had kids myself, and the idea this sort of institutionalized casual cruelty was happening to a mother and young girls, it so infuriated and upset me.”

He discussed Kelly’s story with his production partner, director Tim Disney (the son of Roy Disney). The two have previously made feature films and documentaries dealing with human rights issues, including “The Price of Sugar” and “Crusade: A March Through Time.”

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“We have similar values,” says Haney, adding that they were interested in telling Kelly’s story but initially didn’t know whether it should be a documentary or a dramatic feature. They opted for the latter, “American Violet,” which opens Friday.

Newcomer Nicole Beharie plays the heroine, now called Dee Roberts (all the names and locations have been changed; the film is set in fictional Melody, Texas); Alfre Woodard is her mother; Tim Blake Nelson is an ACLU attorney; Will Patton is a local lawyer who collaborates with the ACLU; and Michael O’Keefe is the D.A.

Haney and Disney thought doing the film as a feature would have more universal resonance with audiences. “You can also draw on the talents of the great actors to have real emotional resonance,” he says. “And we felt that ideally it would be seen by more people and affect more people’s views as a feature film.”

Haney went to Texas and spent a lot of time with Kelly, her children and the attorneys, filming long interviews with them, as well as going through some 50,000 pages of legal documents.

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“Regina was pregnant at 13, and the year I went there, in the African American high school, 169 kids entered as freshmen and only three had graduated,” Haney says. “None went to college. The United States has the largest prison population in the world. Texas has the most people in prison of any place in the U.S. The long, dark hand of the criminal justice system is very clear when you spend time in the projects.”

Haney says Kelly trusted him immediately. “I always felt a great responsibility to the story,” he says. “She hadn’t a lot of positive experiences with men, so for her to be as open and exposed as she was with me, I think that was really courageous.”

Beharie describes Kelly as fearless. “I keep in contact with her,” the actress says. “They did a screening in the actual town in Texas, and she wanted to be there. This experience has changed her. That’s the one thing about the story I am personally moved by.

“You have a choice when certain things happen to you in your life. She could have just taken the plea bargain and it would have been over. But she learned how she felt about being a citizen. . . . I think that’s the sort of something we saw recently with our elections. People, once they kind of get fired up and decide they are going to change some things, you actually can.”

Haney says for years he had been trying to persuade Kelly and her children to move out of the town.

“She resisted, because she felt like she was conceding to the D.A. But she felt continuously harassed and her children were continuously harassed,” Haney says. “Right before we screened it in Texas the first time, she moved into Houston -- thank God.”

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susan.king@latimes.com

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