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February 2, 2009 -- Plainview Daily Herald (TX)

PBS To Air Documentary: 'Tulia, Texas'

By Tommy Young

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When 31-year-old Freddie Brookins Jr. looked up at the big screen at the Universal City Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles earlier this month, he thought, "I can't believe I went through all this."

Brookins was attending the Television Press Critics Association Conference and the promotional screening of the PBS documentary, "Tulia, Texas" produced by Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen.

Brookins was one of 46 Tulia residents who was arrested -- then later pardoned -- on drug charges in what became one of the most controversial drug cases in history.

In all, 39 African-Americans -- about 10 percent of Tulia's black population at the time of the bust in 1999 -- fell victim to crooked undercover cop Tom Coleman.

"The whole thing still troubles me," said Brookins, who spent close to 3 1/2 years of a 20-year sentence in jail before being released in March 2003.

"I hope this (documentary) opens everyone eyes to what really happened," Brookins said.

Brookins' wife Terri said she hopes the one thing the documentary accomplishes is convincing people that "this kind of thing can happen to anybody, anywhere.

"You see this kind of thing happen on TV but don't ever believe it can happen here or happen to me, but it can," she added.

Terri said watching the movie brought back the sadness of the situation, in particular being separated from her husband.

Herrman and Whalen were graduate students in the documentary film program at the University of California-Berkley when they became interested in Tulia. They first became aware of the situation after reading pieces written by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert.

Herrman said the duo saw the situation as a polarizing event, and she and Whalen were determined to approach the project from a different perspective than other media was providing.

"A lot of the media coverage ended when the prisoners were released. We continued on through the Coleman (perjury) trail and documenting the impact the bust had on those arrested, as well as on the community," Whalen said.

The producers said the project provides more perspectives than others.

"We decided not to use a narrator and let those involved in both sides of the issue tell things from their perspective," said Whalen.

"We let the viewers come to their own conclusions, and whether they agree with us or not I think they appreciate the number of perspectives we provide in telling the story," Whalen said.

She noted the bust and the social effect on the city may not be as dramatic as some would hope.

"All we have to go on is what people tell us," she said. "Many in (Tulia) say attitudes and relationships in the community haven't changed very much."

Both producers agree it is an almost unanimous sentiment that the people of Tulia want to put the entire episode behind them.

Herrman noted the Tulia incident has a far-reaching impact.

"It has become the poster child for what is wrong about the way (the United States) is going about the war on drugs," she offered.

The duo spent more than five years -- from spring 2002 to fall 2007 -- -- making at least 12 trips to Tulia, shooting footage and conducting interviews.

The project was finished in January 2008.

The film premiered at the recent South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin where it won several favorable reviews, including a positive mention in the renowned industry tabloid "Variety."

The documentary also has been screened across the country, including at West Texas A&M University in Canyon and at the Texas Tech School of Law.

Whalen noted the screening at WTAMU was emotional.

"These are students who for the most part grew up in the area, and what they know of the situation is what their parents told them and they accepted that," Whalen said.

"Now they are getting an opportunity to ask questions themselves and form their own opinions. There was a lot more passion and intensity in the Q&A session after the screening there than any of the others," she added.

Another movie about the events following the arrests -- a dramatic theatrical release starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton and directed by John Singleton -- is in the works.

Production on "Tulia" began in the fall in New Orleans but was promptly halted after Berry found out she was pregnant with her first child.

Whalen thinks a lot of the nuance of the incident and a blurring of veracity of the events surrounding the bust is possible in a theatrical release. She understands how local residents might be apprehensive about the way they will be portrayed in a dramatic presentation.

The documentary is scheduled to air in Plainview on PBS station KTXT Channel 5, (SuddenLink cable channel 5) at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 10 and again at 10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14. Tulia residents can watch the documentary at 2 a.m. Thursday Feb. 12 on KACV Channel 2, (SuddenLink cable channel 3).

Whalen said it's hard to predict what local residents will think of the film but believes there will be a certain segment of the population that enjoys the presentation.

It's Herrman's hope that, "Regardless of an individual's view of the situation, they can appreciate the various perspective and voices the film presents."

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