“Americans, we’re getting better,” says Alfre Woodard, sounding, well, presidential. “But it’s hard.”
The actress, on the phone from Santa Monica, Calif., is talking about race, about justice — and about racial injustice. As one of the main players in “American Violet,” the powerful based-on-true-events story of a young black woman jailed in a drug sweep who refused to plead guilty — and whose insistence on going to trial exposed systemic racial profiling by a Texas police department and district attorney’s office — Woodard is proud to be involved in the project.
Nicole Beharie, Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton, Alfre Woodard, Michael O'Keefe, Malcolm Barrett, Xzibit Charles S. Dutton
(Samuel Goldwyn Films; US theatrical: 17 Apr 2009 (Limited release); 2008)
“We have big hearts and we get outraged about things, but whatever’s on the front page the next day takes over,” says Woodard, explaining why she thought it was important to tell this tale.
In “American Violet,” Woodard plays the mother of the accused woman, a single parent with four small children whose life falls apart when she’s wrongly arrested. The terrific newcomer Nicole Beharie stars. Her character is based on Regina Kelly, who was caught up in a drug sting in her Hearne, Texas, housing project in November 2000, and went to court — defended by the American Civil Liberties Union — rather than accept a plea bargain. The film, directed by Tim Disney, states that 90 percent of the inmates in America’s prisons are there after plea bargains. Their cases were never tried.
“These stories have come out before, but we all thought the best way to really effect change was an artistic piece, because it will provoke discussion, and viewers can go back to it,” says Woodard, who had been developing a similar project — also based on a Texas case involving racial profiling and legal injustices — when the “American Violet” screenplay came along.
“I knew there were a couple of different ones floating around, and the efforts of many people trying to get the stories made,” she says. “So when I got the script for Regina’s story, I was so excited. I hadn’t even read what my part in it was, and I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it!’ And, of course, it was a page-turner.”
Woodard notes that one of the successes of the movie is that it takes the viewer through the journey from Beharie’s character’s point of view. Even Woodard, as her mom, Alma, is trying to get her to take the plea and get on with her life.
“You can give people statistics over a news story, but when they walk through with one person and they can put themselves in that person’s place, then they realize what’s going on,” Woodard says. “Anytime one person’s liberties are compromised, jeopardized, then everybody’s liberties are.”
Woodard, 56, lives in California with her husband, writer Roderick Spencer, and their two sons. In 2007, she took one of her boys to Washington to meet Barack Obama. Woodard actively campaigned for the presidential candidate. On days when she wasn’t required to be on the “American Violet” set, she hit the road to talk up the junior senator from Illinois.
She says that from her first meeting, she and Obama have had a debate about poverty and class and the inability — in Woodard’s eyes — of some people to ever rise from the depths of destitution and despair.
“There’s a lot of talk about race, but we don’t talk so much about how deeply a classist society we are. This whole idea that anyone can pull themselves up out of their dire situation and suddenly be the top dog — yes, it happens, occasionally. ... But the thing is there are people in this country, I believe, who will never participate in the American Dream. It has to do with the class system and the poor — where poverty has become part of their gene pool.
“But whenever I started to say this to then-Sen. Obama, he would say, ‘I don’t believe that.’
“He said, ‘I don’t believe there’s a person in this country who, given the training and the opportunity, would not jump and grab hold, and pull themselves up out of poverty.’
“That told me so much about the man,” Woodard says.