Judge Asked to Reject 'Out of the Furnace' Defamation Lawsuit

A Native American tribe located in the Northeast is suing over the film's portrayal of a group of inbred criminals in their region.
Relativity Media
"Out of the Furnace"

The producers of Out of the Furnace are demanding that a judge reject a defamation lawsuit filed by 17 members of a Native American tribe located in New York and New Jersey.

The plaintiffs belong to the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, who are upset over last December's release of the film starring 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 New Jersey lawsuit says that " 'Jackson Whites' is a historical slur and that the film's locale, use of surnames like "DeGroat" and "Van Dunk" and more is "too specific to the Ramapough plaintiffs to be chance, coincidence or happenstance" and puts them in a false light.

Now, the defendants — including Relativity Media, Scott Free Productions, Red Granite Pictures, Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way Productions and others — say the lawsuit over what they call a "clearly fictional work" doesn't rise to libel.

"Plaintiffs’ lawsuit, if permitted to proceed beyond the pleading state, will 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," says a brief in support of a motion to dismiss.

Read in full here.

The producers say they have a First Amendment right to create fictitious works about criminal gangs, and cite other past movies that have featured negative characteristics of specific ethnic groups including "The Godfather (Italian gang), The Departed (Irish gang), and Once Upon A Time In America (Jewish gang)."

The lawsuit is also being attacked for insufficiently demonstrating the allegedly defamatory statements to be "of and concerning" the 17 plaintiffs nor understood as making factual claims about any of them. The defendants also raise the "group libel doctrine," which prohibits defamation claims that are based on a plaintiff’s membership in a group if there's no reason for anyone concluding the statement's particular reference to one of its members.

Among the many case law citations in the brief is a lawsuit against the distributor of the motion picture American Gangster. At the end of that film, a "legend" stated that Frank Lucas’ cooperation with law enforcement led to the “conviction of three quarters of New York City’s Drug Enforcement Agency.”  A judge dismissed the lawsuit after determined that the movie didn't specifically referred to any of the 400 DEA agents who brought the suit.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner