'Straight Outta Compton' Makers Take Aim at N.W.A Ex-Manager's Lawsuit

Universal, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and other defendants argue the docudrama is an interpretation of "controversial historical events."
Straight Outta Compton  Universal Pictures

Raising the First Amendment flag, those behind the hit film Straight Outta Compton on Wednesday demanded that most of the claims in former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller's lawsuit must be knocked straight outta court.

Heller filed his $110 million lawsuit in October with a litany of claims boiling down to the fact that he was presented as the villain in the film, not compensated for the use of his likeness, that the defendants stole his work and breached an agreement that settled an old dispute with the Eazy E estate.

Today, NBCUniversal leads an entourage of defendants including Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, director F. Gary Gray and the Oscar-nominated screenwriters with two motions.

One is a dismissal motion that thinks not much of Heller's attempts to make a defamation case out of Paul Giamatti's depiction of him doing things like withholding a $75,000 check from Ice Cube and enjoying lobster brunches while contracts were being finalized. The motion to dismiss argues that Heller has not identified defamatory statements, but merely brought a "hodgepodge of conclusory allegations and subjective interpretations of the Film."

The other — an anti-SLAPP motion that attempts to put an end to a perceived chilling of free speech — presents Straight Outta Compton as a docudrama chronicling N.W.A's history amid changes in the rap music industry and racial tensions. 

"In recounting the highly publicized rise and fall of Ruthless Records and N.W.A, the Film includes criticism of Plaintiff that had been very publicly leveled against him by members of N.W.A and others," states the defendants' memorandum. "Plaintiff’s own previously published book recounting his version of these events concedes that he had been subjected to such public criticism ... Plaintiff appears to claim that the Film allows false implications to be drawn from that criticism ... [A]ny such alleged implications are at most expressions of opinion based on ambiguous and hotly-debated historical events and are not actionable as injurious falsehoods under governing law."

Universal goes on to argue that controversial historical events are subject to various interpretations — leaning on past lawsuits involving the N.W.A history and Heller's own memoir to show that the historical record is ambiguous. The studio acknowledges Straight Outta Compton is an interpretation itself, and while it may have taken creative liberties, the defendants argue that "dramatization through fictionalized scenes and dialogue and compressed or out-of-time sequences are expected in such docudramas, and the Film carries an express disclaimer to this effect."

If Heller is presented as the "bad guy," the filmmakers say this qualifies as an opinion.

"The 'Jerry Heller' character in the Film is not shown committing any improper or illegal actions, or even admitting that he had ever done anything improper," says the motion. "Rather, the Film depicts criticisms articulated by others about Plaintiff, which Plaintiff’s own Memoir concedes had been very publicly leveled against him ... It is impossible to conceive of a serious docudrama exploring this history that would not depict these disputes, and the First Amendment protects the right of filmmakers to tell this story."

The defendants also raise other standard defenses to defamation claims including that a characterization that Heller is "sleazy" who forces his contracts to sign "unfavorable" contracts is merely a non-actionable opinion. Further, Heller allegedly can't satisfy his burden of showing actual malice. And as for alleged misappropriation of Heller's publicity rights, the defendants point to a "public interest exception" under California law.

The defendants are represented by Jeff Scott and other attorneys at Greenberg Traurig. Here's the motion to dismiss and the anti-SLAPP motion.
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