This film is based on events that took place in Hearne, Texas renamed Melody, Texas in this film. The story begins with a drug raid on a run down public housing complex populated by blacks. The film is directed by Tim Disney and the screen play was written by Bill Haney.
The raid was justified by a grand jury indictment based on the secret testimony of a single witness who was a schizophrenic paranoid among other things. The witness, who also is black and who was in custody on other charges, was induced by a corrupt District Attorney to give false testimony against the residents of the housing project by physical abuse and promises of favorable treatment in his own case. Among those arrested is Dee Roberts, a 26 year old waitress and divorced mother of four children living on her earnings and government assistance. The witness alleges she was selling drugs in a school area. A second woman is also arrested on a similar charge. Dee Roberts is played by Nicole Beharie and her mother is played by Alfre Woodard.
The D.A., Calvin Beckett, played by Michael O’Keefe, offers Robert’s court appointed lawyer a plea bargain. In return for a guilty plea to felony sale of narcotics in a school zone, she is guaranteed a small fine and ten years probation. A felony conviction means she will be ineligible for government assistance with the probable loss of her government housing and support as well as the likely loss of her waitress job. This means economic ruin for herself and her children.
Roberts refuses the plea but Lavosha, the other woman arrested and a mother of two children, at the urging of her attorney, accepts and looses her housing and government support. Thus she becomes homeless.
Roberts is bound over for a trial scheduled many months away (this could only be possible if she and her lawyer waived her right to a speedy trial which apparently happened but is not covered in the film) and the judge sets bail at $70,000.00. This is a joke in a city where the median income for females was $19306.00 at the time. However it puts greater pressure on the incarcerated to accept a plea bargain.
Eventually the witness is discredited in a companion case and the accused awaiting trial on the charges against them based on his testimony are freed. (In the real case the accused that could not make bail spent five months in jail.) Roberts, who made bail after it was reduced, spent three weeks in jail.
The lead ACLU attorney (Tim Blake Nelson) decides to bring a suit against the D.A. based on racial discrimination and through Roberts’ minister (Charles Dutton) recruits Roberts to be lead plaintiff. The suit is spearheaded by a local attorney, Sam Conroy (Will Patton), who has a guilty conscience for remaining silent about racial incidents he knew were wrong in the past.
The suit is a classic underdog story and the ACLU and Roberts prevail against the D.A and the other governmental defendants recovering civil damages. However the corrupt D.A. wins reelection and is still in office. The pending election was apparently the motivation for the drug “task force” raid on the poorest of the poorest minority. People who would be unable defend themselves.
The theme of the movie along with racial prejudice is the fact that ninety percent of the people incarcerated in the United States are there on the basis of a plea bargain.
Despite all the Constitutional guarantees we have, including the right against self incrimination, the power of the government to indict or otherwise charge persons with a crime is in the hands of elected officials and the judges that supervise our judicial system. This power, if used improperly can cancel our Constitutional protections.
These officials run for office successfully and are reelected time after time on a platform of being “tough on crime” using statistics like a conviction rate which is really a plea bargain rate in the case of prosecutors or sentencing people to long prison terms in the case of judges. Election and re-election become a numbers game driven by the number of charges filed by the police and plea bargains by the prosecutors and tough sentences handed out by judges if a defendant doesn’t accept a plea and is convicted on just one of the lesser charges brought against him.
It still continues: for example, in 2007 The Los Angeles Times reported that a Division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was reprimanded for having a contest as to who could arrest and charge the most people. Every day we read about some assault weapon, brandishingg ICE “task force” or other task force tearing parents away from small children in the middle of the night. This usually occurs in a poor, minority neighborhood. “Law enforcement” is there trying to get enough arrests to justify their bloated budgets and feed defendants into the judicial system and ultimately into the prisons. It is a bureaucracy trying to self perpetuate itself for its own benefit not the public’s.
Thus the Constitutional guarantees we fondly talk about are decimated when the charges are brought against the poor and uneducated and even the middle class who face bankruptcy and social ostracism by a criminal charge. The only people or entities that can put up a viable defense, against the government are corporations or the wealthy under present conditions. Still the power of the government can crush even the largest corporations or individuals. Relatively few entities can come out unscathed by a RICO prosecution.
A telling fact is the revelation that Lavosha’s conviction stood because she plead guilty despite the fact that the charges against her were later discredited as being based on fraudulent evidence. She plead to a lesser included offense to gain her freedom not because she was guilty but because there was no one to care for her two children and she couldn’t remain in jail. So much for her Constitutional rights.
This case was the subject of a prior Frontline documentary and the demographics of Hearne, Texas in 2000 were: population 4690 people, 38% white, 44% black, the remainder: made up of other races or mixtures; median household income was $19556. Males had a median income of $24013 and females $19306. Thirty one percent of the population was below the poverty line. About 26% of single parent households were female led.
All the lawyers in the film, except one black ACLU lawyer and a lawyer in a companion case, seen only briefly, were white and all the public officials were white except for the guards at the jail. Given the above statistics this doesn’t seem possible, but in Texas, which gave us George W. Bush, Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove, anything is possible.
The film itself is a little over the top and one-sided. The acting was very good, particularly by Nicole Beharie, but one would think she is too elegant and eloquent a person to be a single mother of four at the age of 26. Yet the real Dee Roberts (not her real name) had the courage to refuse a plea bargain and face a long prison sentence if convicted and then the strength of character to be the lead plaintiff in a civil case against a powerful prosecutor and local government. So casting Behaire in the role was not unreasonable.
Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton Charles Dutton, Michael O’Keefe and Alfre Woodard all give fine performances. The rest of the cast and the cinematography are very good also.
Because the events alluded too in the film actually took place and are still happening this film is worth seeing.