Woody Harrelson played Harlan Degroat in the 2013 film "Out of the Furnace."Relativity Media
— A Newark federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by several Ramapough Mountain Indians who claimed the makers of the movie “Out of the Furnace” defamed them by portraying their community as lawless, drug-addicted “inbreds.”
U.S. District Court Judge William Walls said the film did not refer directly to any of the 17 plaintiffs, even though the film’s chief villain, played by Woody Harrelson, shared a centuries-old surname common among the Ramapoughs.
Walls said the Ramapoughs failed to overcome the ‘of and concerning’ standard typically applied to such cases in order to weed out claims by those who believe their reputation has been damaged but cannot cite specific statements.
“It is plain that the ‘of and concerning’ requirement is not met in this case, ” Walls wrote. “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.”
Seven of the 17 plaintiffs – all members of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation - use Degroat as their surname or middle name. In the movie, Harrelson portrays Harlan Degroat, the leader of a violent criminal gang who lives in the mountains of New Jersey.
The film follows the film’s star, Christian Bale, as he tries to keep a younger brother played by Casey Affleck from the clutches of Degroat’s criminal gang.
“The community is depicted as lawless, drug addicted, impoverished and violent, ” lawyers for the Ramapoughs wrote.
Lawyers for the film’s producers, Relativity Media and Appian Way, headed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, warned that if the lawsuit went forward it would expose the film industy to legal challenges from those who disagreed with a movie’s content.
“Plaintiff’s 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, ” attorney Mark Marino wrote in April.
The Ramapough Mountain Indians are believed to number around 5, 000 and live in and around the Ramapo Mountions, in sections of Bergen and Passaic counties, as well as Rockland County in New York.
Their lawsuit claims that they have through the years been tagged with the derogatory label “Jackson Whites.”
The lawsuit alleges that Harrelson’s character is said to lead a gang of Jackson Whites – a charge the film’s producers deny.
Two of the plaintiffs use the last name Van Dunk. Lawyers for the producers denied using the name in the film but said the name Dwight Van Dunk appears in the film’s credits.
Lydia Cotz, a lawyer for the Ramapoughs, declined to comment.
"We are pleased that the court upheld our constitutional right of free speech in the context of this purely fictional film, " said Carol Genis, an attorney for Relativity. "It is a victory for all filmmakers and artists."