'Straight Outta Compton' Lawsuit Survives Because of One Implication About Former N.W.A Manager

A federal judge rejects most of what Jerry Heller thought was defamatory — but not everything.
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Jerry Heller, former manager of N.W.A, is able to move to the next round in a defamation lawsuit over Universal's Straight Outta Compton, the celebrated biopic of the iconic rap act.

It's not because he was framed as a "bad guy" in the film and not because of the scene where Dr. Dre accused him of stealing money. It's not because of the implication that he withheld a $75,000 check from Ice Cube and not because he was portrayed as inducing his clients to sign unfavorable deals. And forget that Heller, portrayed by Paul Giamatti, was eating lobster lunches as N.W.A members suffered. The judge overseeing the lawsuit points to Heller's memoir and what he's admitted to doing and says the movie is allowed to portray these facts in "colorful and hyperbolic" terms.

But after finding that most of Heller's beef with Straight Outta Compton can't rise to defamation because of non-actionable opinions, what reasonable viewers would understand, and how the film treated public controversies, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald finds one implication that's troubling enough to allow the lawsuit to proceed. Ironically, it deals with entertainment industry lawyers.

"The Film arguably portrays Plaintiff as an exploitative record label manager who attempted to take advantage of an unsophisticated artist by discouraging him from retaining an attorney during contract negotiations," he writes in an opinion released late Wednesday.

The judge says there's nothing in the record to suggest this is even substantially true. The implication derives from two scenes. In one, the Heller character tells Ice Cube (played by his real-life son, O'Shea Jackson Jr.) that lawyers "are paid to make trouble" and "create problems where none exists" after Ice Cube indicates that he wishes to retain an attorney to review Heller’s proposed contract. In the second, Ice Cube tells an interviewer that Heller was "trying to get [him] to sign a contract without legal representation."

Fitzgerald writes that "viewers would not necessarily interpret the manager's attempts to prevent an unsophisticated artist from hiring an attorney in a favorable or even neutral light. Those attempts go beyond what is normally expected at the negotiation table, and agents who engage in such tactics may well carry a bad reputation in the industry."

He adds, though, that the lawsuit could still fail because of the absence of evidence that the no-lawyers implication was made with actual malice, a necessary showing in defamation lawsuits involving limited-purpose public figures like those working with celebrities who have written books about their experiences. But at this point, the judge believes that Heller should have opportunity to explore this — and only this — in discovery, and as a result, refuses to fully grant an anti-SLAPP motion and dismiss the complaint.

Here's the full opinion:

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