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Berry picked for ‘Tulia’

Thesp will probe drug bust as NAACP attorney

A correction was made to this article on Jan. 29, 2004.

Oscar winner Halle Berry will topline “Tulia,” portraying a lawyer investigating an infamous Texas drug bust, for Tollin-Robbins Prods.

Thesp, currently shooting Warner’s “Catwoman” in Vancouver, will portray the key attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a case involving the 1999 arrests of 10% of the black population of Tulia, Texas.

The arrests did not produce drugs or money, causing prosecutors and civil rights groups to denounce the bust as racial profiling. The undercover agent who conducted the bust was indicted for perjury; most of the 46 arrestees were pardoned by Texas Gov. Rick Perry last year.

Berry’s next projects will be “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a telepic for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Prods. based on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel set in post-WWII Florida, and Fox Searchlight’s “October Squall,” in which Berry will portray a rape victim.

“Tulia,” which has been in development at Paramount-based Tollin/Robbins for several years, will be directed by one of the partners, Mike Tollin or Brian Robbins. The duo credit baseball icon Henry Aaron for getting the project off the ground.

The producers had worked with Aaron on 1995’s “Chasing the Dream,” which profiled Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record amid racially charged death threats, and were attending an NAACP event several years ago at which Aaron was one of the honorees.

“As part of the presentation about what the NAACP does, they were explaining the situation in Tulia,” Robbins recalled. “We both said, ‘We have to do this movie because it’s so compelling.’ ”

Tollin-Robbins Prods. has acquired film rights to an upcoming book about the Tulia saga by Texas Monthly writer Nate Blakeslee, plus life rights from several key figures.

The story offers up echoes of a pair of successful 2000 pics — “Erin Brockovich” for its focus on a crusading female attorney and “Traffic” for its depiction of the nation’s drug wars. But what’s perhaps most surprising about TRP developing “Tulia” is that the shingle has carved out a niche for itself in middle-of-the-road fare mixing sports and coming-of-age themes.

“It’s never been about saying, ‘This is in our comfort zone,’ ” Tollin noted. “We simply use sports as a backdrop to tell good stories.”

TRP launched with sports docs like “Hardwood Dreams” and “The Show,” moved into features with “Good Burger” and has since produced “Varsity Blues,” “Summer Catch,” “Hardball,” “Radio,” “Ready to Rumble” and HBO’s “Arli$$.” It’s currently shooting “The Ken Carter Story,” about an old-school basketball coach; Paramount/MTV’s “Perfect Score,” centered on high-school students stealing an SAT test, opens Friday; and it’s developing “Fever Pitch,” a baseball version of Nick Hornby’s tale of Brit soccer fandom.

Even the fictional “Perfect Score” stars an actual NBA player, Darius Miles.

Tollin and Robbins simply see “Tulia” as a logical evolution in developing reality-based features such as “Radio” and “Ken Carter.” “Tulia,” they believe, is taking them back to the days of producing sports docs, which included extensive exploration of civil rights issues.

“We don’t see ourselves as social reformers by making these films,” Tollin added. “You couldn’t invent what happened in Tulia. That’s why we’ve pursued rights very aggressively, because we think it’s critical to involve the holders in retelling the story.”

Robbins helmed “The Perfect Score,” “Hardball,” “Ready to Rumble” and “Varsity Blues”; Tollin directed “Summer Catch” and “Radio.”

TRP, which is repped by UTA, is also among the town’s more prolific TV producers, with “Smallville,” “All That,” “Nick Cannon,” “Slamball,” “One Tree Hill,” “I’m With Her” and “What I Like About You.” The shingle moved its TV deal from Warner to Touchstone last year.

Berry, who’s repped by WMA and managed by Vincent Cirrincione, was hospitalized Saturday after colliding with a boom mike while filming a running scene for “Catwoman,” but her injuries were minor and she returned to the set this week.

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