“American Violet,” the fine new film about the real-life woman who took on corrupt and racist law enforcement officials in 2000, was written by Bill Haney. It was a very great pleasure to get to talk to him about the film.
Tell me a little about your background and about what made you want to write this story.
I grew up in a Benedictine monastery in Rhode Island. My dad was a teacher there and I went to school there and left to go to college. It was there I got the general idea that the goal of life isn’t to get something from the world but to give something to the world. The purpose of storytelling is to illuminate and express something useful about the human condition, sometimes joyful, sometimes distracting, but in an ideal world, constructive. I like stories about an ordinary person called upon to do something extraordinary. I heard Wade Goodman on NPR talking about this case in Texas. His storytelling was classic NPR expositional context so that I felt compelled and moved, and that was what launched the journey to find the people and write the story.
It seems to me to be a essentially American story — an underdog seeking justice.
It is a systemically frustrating view of American justice, and the way they fought to get justice. We’ve been doing these word-of-mouth screenings with really interesting discussions. One woman said she was really pleased to see the message that we can get change through the system, that if we are educated and stand up it can work.
I am often of critical of films that set the lighting for the white characters and do not to justice to black skin tones but this film lights the black characters beautifully.
That was important to us, too. It is challenging to make sure the visual beauty is equally spread.
What has happened to the real-life woman who is called Dee in the movie?
In a lot of ways she is doing great. At one level this has been a marathon experience for her. She stayed in the community until four weeks ago. She’s gone through a lot of struggles including some serious health problems. She’s still there and he’s still there so it hasn’t ended, but it has been cathartic for her to get this experience out there. She’s a bright, charismatic woman. But her community is blighted. In the local high school, 169 entered as freshmen, but only three graduated and none went to college. There are these inherent limitations and she pierced right through that. She’s out giving talks, finding a voice and a place in society. Her children have found this process hugely validating and inspiring. Telling her story this way helped them respect and admire her. She is articulate and persuasive. It has left some marks on her but she is stronger and a person with a bigger voice in her world as a result.
What are some of the movies you saw when you were young that inspired you to want to make films?
At the all boys school we had no television but we had these screenings on Saturday nights. I saw “Guns of Navarone” and was completely smitten. I love Peter Weir movies, especially “The Year of Living Dangerously” — a magical story for me.
What are you working on next?
I’ve outlined three movies and a documentary about endangered species. Half my work is connected to something around the environment and food will be at the core of the next movie. Food is a great subject because it is about love, health, appreciation, beauty, soulfulness, and humor.
What makes you laugh?
PG Wodehouse. My wife has me on a Wodehouse allocation. She will only let me read for like 15 minutes at a time. I love dry humor, fish out of water stories. My own three kids make me laugh — kids know how to surf your waves. If you’re not laughing at them you’re laughing with them. I love Abbott and Costello and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.”