In a rare defamation action, a group of retired federal drug enforcement agents are suing NBC Universal, alleging that the movie “American Gangster” falsely portrayed them. In the film starring Denzel Washington, the agents are portrayed as the bad guys in the story of a Harlem heroin trafficker. The former agents are seeking $50 million in damages plus profits from the film, including punitive damages. NBC Universal seems to be making matters worse for themselves by alternatively claiming that the story is based of fact or completing fictional.
The film features the central character of Frank Lucas, who was a government information after a 1975 conviction. The former agents cite the fact that the movie is based on true events, but contains clearly false statements like, according to the suit, a statement at the end of the film that Frank Lucas’ collaboration with prosecutors “led to the convictions of three-quarters of New York City’s Drug Enforcement Agency.”
The plaintiffs claim that no DEA agents or New York City police officers were ever convicted as a result of tips provided by Lucas. However, critics have questioned whether any police officers were ever convicted as part of the Lucas matter.
Universal pictures argues that the film depicts refers to corrupt New York police officers not DEA agents. Yet, in a letter,
NBC Universal Senior Vice President David Burg called the film a “fictionalized work” despite the statements of its spokesman that “the material facts are conveyed truthfully” in the film.
An Associated Press article quotes one agent in contesting scenes from the film:
Korniloff said in the suit that he was a lead agent assigned to the case and was present when agents and police officers raided Lucas’ home in Teaneck, N.J. in 1975 _ a scene depicted in “American Gangster.”
In the Ridley Scott film, which was released in November and also featured Russell Crowe and Josh Brolin, corrupt narcotics agents shoot the drug dealer’s dog, assault his wife and brazenly steal currency stashed in the house while making the arrest.
The suit said that in real life, the search was carried out legally; nearly $585,000 in currency was seized in accordance with a valid search warrant.
Hollywood will often wait until characters in a fact-based film have died, relying on the common law rule that you cannot defame the dead (which means practically that you can since no action for defamation can be brought for false statement made against a deceased individual). For a column on the rule, click here
This lawsuit, therefore, could create some important precedent for Hollywood. One problem is the difficulties in proving “group libel.” One of the leading cases occurred in 1952 in a New York lawsuit. In Neiman-Marcus v. Lait, employees of that high-end story sued the author of a book titled “U.S.A. Confidential.” The book claimed that some of the models at the story and all of the saleswomen in the Dallas store were “call girls.” It further stated that most of the salesmen in the men’s department were “faggots.” The issue came down to the size of the group. With 382 saleswomen and models, the court found that the group was too large. However, with the 25 salesmen, the court found that an action could be maintained.
In this case, there are hundreds of agents in comparison. The Neiman-Marcus numbers are often cited but are hardly controlling. The area of group libel has long needed a more contemporary decision on the issue — perhaps a contribution of the American Gangster to American jurisprudence.