| The "war on drugs" has created injustices in the legal system and a concealed form of racism that segregates and profiles African-Americans in small town America. These themes are at the heart of this touching and emotional story of a woman standing up against a corrupt system.
Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie from "The Express") is a divorced mother of four who lives in a government housing project in Melody, Texas. She barely scrapes by with her job at a local diner.
She is arrested in a raid by a police task force using military tactics. She is charged with distributing narcotics in a school zone based on the allegations of a single informant. She is assigned a public defender who urges her to take a plea bargain. She would pay a small fine and receive a 10-year suspended sentence as a convicted felon.
This immediate "get out of jail" permit has terrible consequences, because the conviction would get her thrown out of government housing. In addition, she would no longer receive welfare, food stamps, AFDC or Medicare for herself or her children. Her right to vote would be rescinded and the chances of getting a job would be close to zero.
Calvin Beckett (Michael O'Keefe), district attorney for Harmon County, is up for re-election and has a tough-on-crime platform. He is well aware that federal money goes to counties that convict the most people. He uses the drug laws to terrorize poor people and selectively targets people of color. Plea bargains are an effective weapon to hasten convictions.
The ACLU steps in with a counter lawsuit claiming the drug task force raid showed racial bias and was illegal. Dee agrees to serve as the plaintiff.
The time span of the events run from November 2000 through April 2002. In the background, the controversial presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore gets decided by the Supreme Court. The few hanging chads would have been a moot point if the almost 4 million disenfranchised felons (95 percent took plea bargains) had been allowed to vote.
The sterling ensemble cast includes Tim Blake Nelson as lead ACLU attorney David Cohen; Will Patton as local attorney Sam Conroy; Charles Dutton as Reverend Sanders; Alfre Woodard as Dee's red-headed mother Alma Roberts; Malcolm Barrett as ACLU attorney Byron Hill; and Xzibit as Dee's ex-husband Darrell Hughes.
Screenwriter Bill Haney was inspired by the real-life story of Regina Kelly. It took six years to get this terrific story to the screen, but director Tim Disney (grandson of Roy O. Disney, who founded Walt Disney Pictures with granduncle Walt), Haney and the talented actors deserve hearty congratulations for bringing to light this important topic.
This movie should be discussed in political circles and can be a vehicle for much-needed legislative changes.
Newcomer Beharie gives a polished performance that deserves awards consideration. She has an immediate likability and easily sways the audience to take her side. Woodard is very strong in a supporting turn. The entire cast is believable and makes you forget that they are merely actors. Comparing favorably with "Norma Rae," "Silkwood" and "Erin Brockovich," this movie should be on your "must-see" list for 2009.
Opening Friday exclusively at the Tivoli in Westport.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"