The Making Of
Co-producers and directors Kelly Whalen and Cassandra Herrman reflect on interviewing Tulia residents, the “perfect storm” that enabled the drug sting to occur and how their film differs from other media coverage of the town.
What led you to make TULIA, TEXAS?
We first heard about Tulia in the summer of 2002 after reading some op-ed articles. We had both produced stories dealing with the criminal justice system, and the apparent racism underlying the Tulia sting, the subsequent convictions and the story's small-town backdrop sparked our interest. We first spoke by phone with residents of Tulia and then decided to fly there, launching the first of over a dozen visits to the area.
With the Tulia story, we saw an opportunity to illuminate a side of the war on drugs that’s rarely covered. Narcotics task forces in Texas and in many other states predominantly target people of color in rural areas; yet most films about American drug policy take place in urban areas, not in rural communities.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
We knew we wanted to do something different than the previous coverage of Tulia, which had consisted largely of polarizing, formulaic news magazine stories. We wanted to give viewers an opportunity to consider the various perspectives of all the people involved in the Tulia events. But to do that, we needed access to a broad range of people in a town that was very divided about the drug sting and its aftermath. And as Tulians like to say, “In a small town, everyone knows everyone.” So we had to tread carefully, be honest from the outset about our intentions and hope that people took us at our word. Luckily, most did.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
When we first visited Tulia, we were worried that being outsiders would be a liability, especially since many people felt misconstrued by the mainstream media. From the outset we emphasized that we were independent filmmakers, not attached to any national media organization, and self-funded. We never hid the fact that we were talking to everyone involved, from the defendants to Tom Coleman. Although many people were wary of us and said they were ready to “move on,” there were others who opened up to us when they saw us return again and again.
What surprised you the most in covering this story?
When we first read about Tulia, the coverage focused on accusations that racism was the root cause of the 1999 arrests. But the story wasn’t so clear-cut. What we discovered over the years we spent filming was the role that economics played in fueling racial divisions. The demise of farming and agriculture, coupled with the general decline of small-town America, created a lot of anxiety in Tulia. With this economic decline came fears of a moral decline and a way of life that was being threatened. These economic, social and racial anxieties created the “perfect storm” that swept Tom Coleman into town in 1998.
Does the storytelling in TULIA, TEXAS differ from other coverage of the drug sting? If so, how?
By the time we began filming in Tulia, the drug sting and trials had captured national media attention, but the story had never been told in a full-length, independent documentary or with the participation of key characters such as Tom Coleman or Sheriff Stewart.
Unlike most of the media—who parachuted into Tulia for key events—we spent a lot of time in the community, over the course of five years of filming. And whereas most media coverage ended with the former defendants released from prison, our film shows how the town is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the drug sting.
How can people find out about other situations like this that may be happening around the U.S.?
There are a number of organizations that are tracking these types of law enforcement abuses and civil rights injustices, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and its Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as well as the Drug Policy Alliance Network. Many U.S. cities also have an Innocence Project, which take on cases of wrongfully convicted Americans. [See Learn More for these and additional resources.]
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?
We would’ve liked to capture a more recent interview with the sheriff, as well as the perspectives of more jurors and community members, who spoke to us off camera but were reticent to take a public stand. We also wished we had been able to get access to Coleman’s other supervisors on the drug task force, the judge who presided over the original Tulia trials and the district attorney who prosecuted the drug sting defendants.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Cassandra Herrman: The obvious scene that still resonates is the release of the defendants and the images of families reuniting. Within that scene is a moment where Patti Brookins looks out at the crowd and reflects that things might change for the better in Tulia. It’s a bittersweet thought, because after everything that’s happened there’s still the hope of reconciliation. But as the years have gone by it seems less and less likely.
Kelly Whalen: Toward the end of the film, we show what life is like for Freddie Brookins Jr, living back in Tulia after being released from prison. He shares the story about when his father pulls him aside to tell him he must find a way to forgive those who’ve wronged him. I think it’s been a long process for Freddie and his family to get to this point. I continue to be moved by Freddie’s strength of character and his ability to move forward in his hometown, despite the fact that officials and community leaders have never publicly apologized for the mistakes they’ve made and the pain they’ve caused him and his family.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
We’ve found audiences at film festivals and community screenings so far have been very receptive to the documentary. People have expressed a range of emotions: most are angered by the abuses and prejudices they see, but also inspired by the fight to restore justice and the courage of the defendants and their families we tried to represent.
Everyone featured in the film has viewed it except for Tom Coleman, who did not attend the screening in his area. Other people featured in the film have responded that they felt the storytelling was balanced and fair, although not all agreed with our point of view.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We always felt that public television would be an ideal showcase to present TULIA, TEXAS. We wanted the film to reach both residents of small towns and national policy makers—and PBS has a broad demographic. From our previous experience working in public television, we knew that the film would have a greater chance of reaching underserved communities and continuing to have an impact beyond broadcast.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
It’s enormously challenging to make a living as an independent filmmaker, but what makes it rewarding is the excitement of coming across a compelling story, like we found in TULIA, TEXAS, one that keeps unfolding and challenging your assumptions. Though it consumed nearly six years of our lives, it was incredible to witness the courageous efforts that led to the release of the Tulia defendants.