Out of the Furnace

Scott Cooper‘s star-studded drama Out of the Furnace has, so far, been a box office disappointment. Despite the Oscar-caliber cast and crew, the film has grossed only $10 million since its December 4 release. Now, to rub even more salt in the wound, the filmmakers are being sued by seventeen Ramapough Indians who “feel embarrassed and humiliated because of false representations” the film makes about people who live in Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey. 

The Bergen Record has the full story.

In Out of the Furnace, Woody Harrelson plays a character named Harlan DeGroat, an evil man who runs an isolated drug empire and bare-knuckle boxing club in the Ramapo mountains. The film calls his people “inbred” once and perpetuates some generally negative connotations about them, but never refers to any Indians. In fact it makes several attempts to separate DeGroat’s people from any actual reality, referring to the film’s version of the mountains as “another world.” However, the names “DeGroat” and “Van Dunk,” the latter used by another character in the film, common in the region. That’s one of the main points the plaintiffs are latching on to.

The attorney for the 17 Ramapough Indians wrote the following in the court statement:

[By setting scenes] in the Ramapough Mountains of New Jersey, by referring to the criminal gang and/or community as Jackson Whites and by using the DeGroat and Van Dunk surnames for the principal villains, all of which make for a ready association between these plaintiffs and the movie.

I spoke with Cooper before news of this lawsuit broke, and he already was very careful to make sure he was not making any generalizations:

I’ve always been interested in kind of the blue-collar milieu or people who are disenfranchised who live on the margins of society. But I also wanted to tell about a place in New Jersey that not many people knew existed. Unfortunately, for all the people I know who kind of know about New Jersey, it isn’t just a gorgeous mountain region….I mean, look, the people in the film could just as easily have been Virginia or West Virginia or Spain or wherever. I just happened to choose that location because it’s so close to Manhattan and people didn’t even realize it existed. And it was also about five or five and a half hours from the Pittsburgh region to give it a sense of feeling almost foreign to the people in Pittsburgh, in Braddock, where I wrote the piece. So I’m not making any pejorative statement about people who lived in the mountains of New Jersey. I don’t want it to come across their way.

Cooper did admit, however, Harrelson’s character is based on a real person:

Woody’s character is based on someone who did touch my immediate family in a very tragic way, and you know, it’s difficult to write about those sort of things.

What will come of this lawsuit is still very much in flux. It was only recently filed and Relativity Media, who released the film, would not yet comment to the Bergen Record. The Record did write the following, though, which I personally found interesting:

The lawsuit says that the movie has caused shame, embarrassment and humiliation and that the plaintiff’s children have suffered teasing and harassment in school as a result of the movie.

This last part sounds like a whole other complicated issue. Kids are very reactive. The fact they would have any knowledge of this small, modestly marketed R-rated film seems unlikely in the first place. (Even if it does star Batman.) It’s not being regularly advertised on network television or anything. Second, none of the “inbred” characters in the film are Native American. I sincerely doubt, even if kids saw the movie, they’d make a connection to schoolmates whose home may have been an outside inspiration for the characters. That is, unless, their parents pointed it out to them. Which is a whole other question. The film is rated R “for strong violence, language and drug content.” Blaming the film for bullying feels like grasping at straws.

One thing is for certain: if the Ramapough Indians really feel they are owed damages from the filmmakers, filing this lawsuit will only increase their discomfort. It’s bringing more attention to a film that was already fading from memory.

Thanks again to the Bergen Record for the heads up on this interesting story. What are your thoughts on the lawsuit?

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