Filmmakers Dodge Tribe's Defamation Suit
(CN) - A Native American tribe cannot pursue claims that the new Christian Bale movie "Out of the Furnace" defames them as "inbred mountain folk," a federal judge ruled.
Seventeen members of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, a recognized tribe, sued writers Scott Cooper and Brad Inglesby and five production companies - Relativity Media, Appian Way, Energy Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, and Red Granite Pictures - in New Jersey.
Lead plaintiff Wilbur DeGroat III said people living near the Ramapo Mountains of New York and New Jersey consider the tribe "inbred," and that the media often falsely portrays it as dangerous and violent with "outsiders."
The movie "Out of the Furnace," released on Dec. 6, weeks before the complaint was filed, stars nonparties Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Casey Affleck and Zoe Saldana.
It centers around Bale's character seeking justice after his younger brother is murdered by Harlan DeGroat, "the chief of a gang of 'inbreds' living in Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey" played by Harrelson, according to the lawsuit.
In the film, the "inbreds" use common surnames of the Ramapoughs and plaintiffs - eight of whom are DeGroats. The characters are also called "Jackson Whites," a real derogatory term used for the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, and travel on ATVs, as do the plaintiffs.
At one point in the film, Dafoe's character tells the protagonist that Chief DeGroat and his companion are "inbred mountain folk from Jersey," according to the lawsuit.
Cooper allegedly said in an interview that he had Harrelson research "people in that area of the country" and "watch some documentaries."
The tribe said the film has humiliated them and caused their children to be harassed at school. They sought compensatory and punitive damages for defamation and emotional distress.
U.S. District Judge William Walls in Newark dismissed the action on May 14.
"Plaintiffs plead only that some of them share the same surname, but not first name, as two of the characters in the movie," Walls wrote. "They also contend that they are Ramapoughs, as are the characters in the movie, and that many of them live in the same region as the Ramapoughs. These allegations do not suffice to show that the alleged defamatory statements are 'of and concerning' these plaintiffs."
Merely claiming that the film's general portrayal of a small group concerns each Ramapough as an individual fails under the "group libel doctrine," the unpublished ruling states.
"Unfortunately for plaintiffs, they have admitted that they are not portrayed in the movie," Walls wrote (emphasis in original). "Even were their pleadings sufficient to support the exception to the group libel doctrine, plaintiffs' admission that they, in fact, are not portrayed, with the logical corollary that the statements do not concern them, makes the exception to the group libel theory inapplicable as a matter of law. This is because they have conceded that what the exception is meant to establish is in fact not the case."
Having dismissed the defamation or false light claims, the court threw out the emotional distress claims for the same reasons.
Relativity applauded the decision.
"As we have said all along, the picture is not based upon any particular person or group of people, and the court agreed with us on this point," the studio said in a statement. "We are satisfied that the court has upheld the right of free speech in the context of this purely fictional film."