Native Americans Sue ‘Out of the Furnace,’ Allege Defamatory Depiction of New Jersey Clan

Plaintiffs say Woody Harrelson and his onscreen cronies are too close be chance — and have caused them harm and embarassment

A group of 17 members of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation Tribe – many with the last name DeGroat or Van Dunk – are suing “Out of the Furnace” filmmakers, including writer/director Scott Cooper and Relativity Media, for what they say is a defamatory depiction of their clan that’s caused them pain and embarrassment.

“Furnace” stars Christian Bale as a man tangling with a gang of “inbreds” in the deep, hilly forests of New Jersey, including a ringleader named Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson) and another gangster named Dwight Van Dunk (played by Bobby Wolfe).

Of the 17 defendants, eight are named DeGroat, and two are named Van Dunk. Many of the defendants live in or around rural Mawah, N.J., a 20-mile drive from Bergen County, where Bale’s character twice travels across the state from Braddock, Pa., in attempts to infiltrate them and exact vengeance for the death of his brother.

Also read: TheWrap Screening Series: How Scott Cooper Hooked Casey Affleck With ‘Out of the Furnace’

Defendants include Cooper, who has repeatedly said he wrote the screenplay from a personal experience; Brad Inglesby, who co-wrote with Cooper; distributor Relativity Media; and production companies Appian Way, Energy Entertainment, Scott Free Prods., Red Granite Pictures. The suit also names five “John Doe” defendants, alluding that they include the film’s actors.

A Relativity spokesman said the studio had not reviewed the complaint and would not be commenting. Responding to previous protests by Ramapough people, the studio had maintained that the film is entirely fictional.

Filed Monday in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, the defamation lawsuit does not specify damages other than to say they are in excess of $150,000. It says each of the plaintiffs is a member of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, a Native American ethnic group recognized by New Jersey and New York.

“Historically, the Ramapough Lunaape people were referred to locally as ‘Jackson Whites,’ a derogatory term with various origins ascribed to it, none of them complimentary. … The people of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation have historically been widely discriminated against in educational opportunity, employment and other matters, and are regarded as ‘inbred’ among their surrounding populations and communities,” the lawsuit states.

The filing says DeGroat and Van Dunk are “well known common surnames among the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, and have been for 200 years or so.”

In the film, released Dec. 6, Casey Affleck‘s character becomes involved with a bareknuckle fight-club ring and is murdered by Harlan DeGroat, the leader of a gang identified as the “Jackson Whites,” described as a community of “inbreds” that inhabits the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey, according to the lawsuit.

Also read: ‘Out of the Furnace’ Review: Christian Bale Anchors This Well-Intentioned but Flat Drama

“The community is depicted as lawless, drug- addicted, impoverished and violent; and the members appear to be of some sort of racially mixed heritage,” the lawsuit states.

The suit states that the film “puts Plaintiffs, and their family members, in a false light, and has caused them shame, embarrassment and humiliation. Their children have suffered teasing and harassment in school as a result of this. … The connection between the ethnic slur of ‘Jackson Whites,’ with the location of the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey, with a Bergen County Police patrol car, with the surnames ‘DeGroat’ and ‘Van Dunk,’ is too specific to the Ramapough plaintiffs to be chance, coincidence or happenstance.”

The lawsuit demands a jury trial on the civil defamation count, and seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages and legal fees.