- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

The filmmakers behind “American Violet,” the new movie about one woman’s struggle against the more egregious elements of the war on drugs in a small Texas town, hope their picture might be a game-changer in the discussion about America’s drug policy.

“I think movies can put a very human face [on an issue] and begin to penetrate all the veneers that people put on themselves,” says writer Bill Haney.

Here, that face belongs to Nicole Beharie, the star and emotional center of “American Violet.”

“I lived in a small town called Orangeburg, South Carolina, and I knew people who … had had similar problems,” the actress says. “I was familiar with the population this is happening to.”

That population tends to consist of poor, black families, the type who are swept up in drug raids — sometimes unfairly. “American Violet” tells the story of Dee Roberts, one of those people unfairly swept up into the judicial system for a drug-related crime she didn’t commit.

Dee is pressured by the district attorney and her own court-appointed attorney to plead guilty in order to avoid jail time — a move that would brand her a felon, stripping her of the right to vote and eligibility for welfare and government-subsidized housing. Instead, she chooses to fight the charge, risking decades in prison and the loss of her children. With the aid of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and a little bit of luck, she is vindicated and the system is reformed.

“American Violet” is especially timely considering the slowly shifting public attitudes on drug laws. According to a recent Zogby poll, 44 percent of people nationwide think legalizing marijuana is a good idea. On the West Coast, that rate rises to 56 percent.

“There’ve been a lot of media stories, blog posts, and it’s in the air now,” says director Tim Disney about changing public attitudes.

Elected officials, however, are almost in lock step in opposition to any move toward legalization. At a recent town-hall cyber-meeting, President Obama laughed off a question about legalizing pot, treating the very idea as an especially silly joke.

“It’s become this binary issue,” Mr. Disney complains about the war on drugs. “You’re either 100 percent law enforcement or you’re soft on crime.”

Mr. Disney is openly contemptuous of the war on drugs, which he calls “an utter and complete catastrophe, and a boondoggle monetarily.”

Portraying such visceral disgust on film without coming across as moralizing or pedantic is tricky. For the filmmakers, it was important to use the intimacy of the medium to forge an emotional connection between the audience and the protagonist, Dee.

“I felt a profound sense of empathy in her for the character,” Mr. Haney says of his lead’s performance. “I feel like the real-life character decided to stand up when someone told her to sit down.”

Drawn to the story after being driven to tears by the transparent injustice of Ms. Roberts’ situation as reported on National Public Radio, he offered to do whatever he could to bring her tale to as many people as possible.

Thus was “American Violet” born.

Changing public opinion is no easy task, however, and a smaller movie like this one — one without the backing of a major advertising push — depends almost entirely upon word of mouth.

“It only works if the audiences that come say to people when they go home, to their churches or their family or their friends, ‘Boy, this is a challenging picture, in a way, but it’s really compelling, and there’s artistry in the performances, and it’s about something,’” Mr. Haney says.

Wilco, live at the Avalon (kind of)

One of the highlights of Filmfest DC is the screening of “Ashes of American Flags,” the new Wilco concert film directed and produced by Brendan Canty and Christoph Green, the masterminds behind the D.C.-area outfit Trixie DVD.

The movie screens Saturday at the Avalon Theatre and will be followed by an after-party at Comet Ping Pong, where local bands will perform their own takes on Wilco’s library. Mr. Green and Mr. Canty will be on hand at the screening for a post-viewing question-and-answer session.

“This is our third Wilco project,” Mr. Green said when asked about the movie’s origins. “When they decided to do something bigger, they called us, and we discussed back and forth what would be a cool project. I think we all wanted to make a music film — for the fans, for the people who really understand what they’re about musically.”

Founded in 2004, the pair’s company probably is best known for the Burn to Shine DVDs, a series of concert films that highlight local bands from across the country performing in houses scheduled for demolition.

“My greatest hope is to expose people to bands they might not have heard of,” Mr. Canty said. “You see how great bands can be great whether you’ve heard of them or not and whether they get outside of their city or not.”

Mr. Canty knows something about local music scenes, having played drums for the legendary D.C. act Fugazi (which he says might have some interesting, previously unreleased archive material coming out in the next year or so).

“Music is kind of a social thing,” Mr. Green said, adding that “getting everyone to come out and watch [the film] is really exciting. … We’ve had tremendous reaction, we’ve had people cheering songs as if this was a concert.”

• SONNY BUNCH can be reached at sbunch@washingtontimes.com.

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