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A New Jersey federal judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit over Out of the Furnace filed last December by 17 members of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, a Native American tribe located mostly in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.
The film starred Christian Bale tracking his younger brother, played by Casey Affleck, who has been lured into a ruthless crime ring led by the evil character of Harlan De Groat, played by Woody Harrelson. The group is identified as the Jackson Whites and described as a community of “inbreds.”
The Native Americans who brought the lawsuit called the film a “hate crime” and said that the ethnic slur of “Jackson Whites” referred to them, put them in a false light, and was “too specific to the Ramapough plaintiffs to be chance, coincidence or happenstance.”
The producers, including Relativity Media, Scott Free Productions, Red Granite Pictures and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Appian Way Productions demanded dismissal, arguing that it didn’t meet First Amendment standards and warning it would “chill free speech by subjecting creators and distributors of movies and other works of fiction to liability whenever some members of a distinct ethnic, cultural, social or other definable group dislike how their group is presented.”
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William Walls granted the dismissal motion.
“It is plain that the ‘of and concerning’ requirement is not met in this case,” says the judge’s opinion. “Plaintiffs plead only that some of them share the same surname, but not first name, as two of the characters in the movie. 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.”
The judge also points to what the plaintiffs have acknowledged about the movie’s characters. “Unfortunately for Plaintiffs, they have admitted that they are not portrayed in the movie,” the judge writes.
The judge also throws out a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim that was premised on the same facts.
A Relativity spokesperson offered this comment in reaction to the ruling:
“We are pleased with the New Jersey Federal Court’s decision today to dismiss the complaint filed by members of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation concerning the film, Out of the Furnace. 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. We are satisfied that the Court has upheld the right of free speech in the context of this purely fictional film.”
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