When we first heard about Tulia in the summer of 2002, the small town in West Texas had become a lightning rod for criticism of the drug wars. The apparent racism underlying the 1999 drug sting, the subsequent convictions and the story's small-town backdrop sparked our interest. Could there really be 46 cocaine dealers in a town of 5,000, all accused of selling to one undercover cop? The last of the trials had ended two years before, but the story was far from over. 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.
When we began filming in Tulia, the drug sting and its aftermath had captured considerable national media attention, but most of the television coverage consisted of formulaic news magazine stories or talk-shock programs. By presenting a different take on the story, we wanted to reach a broad viewing audience, including those who had been alienated by the divisive news reports. We felt it was important to minimize “outsider” voices; we wanted to put the Tulia story back in the voices of those people who had lived it and tell what happened without a narrator. In framing the Tulia story from the different perspectives of those most closely involved, we ask viewers to consider the experiences of all those involved: from law enforcement and jurors to the defendants and their families. With our access to the array of people featured in the film, we hope viewers will walk away with surprising counterpoints to the broad-stroke portrayals in the popular media.
In the cross-section of stories presented—including the former undercover agent, the father of one of the defendants, the sheriff and the retired minister—we wanted to show a more complex, nuanced place instead of the usual portrayals of small towns on television. We hope viewers will see their own communities reflected in the daily life of Tulia, and in the struggles and aspirations of the townspeople we represented.
We were just as surprised as many Tulians to witness the remarkable turn of events that made the landmark civil rights case we know today. As our camera captured each new development, our goal was to put viewers inside this compelling legal thriller we experienced ourselves. But we also set out to present an intimate town portrait, taken from our growing recognition of the tensions playing out between Tulia neighbors, coworkers, church parishioners and townspeople.
Some viewers may interpret what happened in Tulia as yet another small town scandal and the story of a rogue cop. But, in the course of making this documentary, our eyes were opened to our nation’s entrenched problems with corrupt drug law enforcement. As we learned, the current system gives communities financial incentive to participate in the war on drugs—and rewards them if they deliver. What happened in Tulia is rooted in a much bigger, systemic problem in this country, and we hope viewers will recognize that these events could have happened in any town in America.
We hope the film compels viewers to take a critical look at law enforcement practices and the biases that may exist in their own communities.
—Cassandra Herrman and Kelly WhalenWatch a short Inside Indies interview with the filmmakers >>