Members of the Ramapough Mountain Indians claim the newly released film “Out of the Furnace” falsely portrays them as lawless, violent, impoverished and drug-addicted inbreds.
The 17 plaintiffs in a suit filed Monday in federal court in Newark say the film, released Dec. 6, plays on negative stereotypes that the Ramapoughs, also known as the Ramapo Lenape Nation, have long endured.
The film depicts a group called the “Jackson Whites,” which the plaintiffs say is an ethnic slur historically used to refer to the Ramapoughs and is “easily recognizable” as about them.
Their attorney Lydia Cotz, of Cotz & Cotz in Ramsey, calls the film “a continuing vehicle to perpetuate the derogatory ethnic stereotype” of the Ramapoughs,” with “major misrepresentations” of her clients’ character, history and beliefs that have “exposed them to ridicule, hatred and shame.”
The plaintiffs claim that the film has embarrassed and humiliated them and that their children have been teased and harassed at school about it.
The Ramapoughs live in the wooded Ramapo Mountain area of northern New Jersey and adjacent parts of New York, with a tribal center located in Mahwah, N.J. They have been recognized as a native American tribe on the state but not the federal level.
The complaint describes a history of discrimination against them in education, employment and other areas and the sensationalized and baseless images of them in mainstream media and publications such as “Weird New Jersey” and “Roadside America” as dangerous and violent with outsiders.
A “Weird New Jersey” piece, titled “History and Legends of the Mysterious Jackson Whites,” begins: “For many years now there have been stories of a degenerate race of people who live an isolated existence removed from the civilized world in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains.”
“Out of the Furnace” tracks the efforts of the protagonist, played by Christian Bale, to find his brother, played by Casey Affleck, a bare-knuckle fighter who disappears after becoming involved with “one of the most violent and ruthless crime rings in the Northeast.”
The “Jackson Whites” are depicted as a gang of backwoods outlaws living in the Ramapo Mountains. Their leader, played by Woody Harrelson, is named Harlan DeGroat.
DeGroat is a common Ramapough surname, as is Van Dunk, the name of one of DeGroat’s gang. The plaintiffs in the suit include eight DeGroats and two Van Dunks.
The gang members are shown riding ATVs, “a common and well-known means of transportation by Ramapoughs when travelling through the Ramapo Mountains both for recreation and to get from one community to another,” says the complaint.
Other aspects of the film mentioned in the complaint link it to the Ramapoughs and depict them in a negative way.
After being menaced by two characters including DeGroat, a character played by Willem Dafoe describes them as “inbred mountain folk from New Jersey” and later warns Bale “You don’t want to set foot in those mountains.”
The local police chief, played by Forest Whittaker, tells Bale’s character that it is a “whole nother world up there” and that the people “up in those hills” have their “own breed of justice” and “generation upon generations” of them “never come down from that mountain.”
Another scene depicts a Bergen County police officer warning Bale to leave before he has to be removed in a body bag.
Plaintiff attorney Cotz says she succeeded in getting the New York Post to remove from its website a review which said “Out of the Furnace” was about “tough as nails New Jersey hillbillies who live in a self-contained world of drugs, violence and trailer homes” and was based on “the real backwoods life of the Ramapough Mountain Indians.”
The suit, DeGroat v. Cooper, seeks $50 million in damages.
Named as defendants are director-writer Scott Cooper, screenwriter Brad Inglesby and several production companies, including Relativity Media in Beverly Hills.
Calls to Relativity Media in-house Greg Shamo and Lauren Goldberg on Tuesday were not returned.
The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge William Walls and Magistrate Judge Cathy Waldor in Newark.
The Ramapough have been involved in other high-profile litigation.
A civil rights suit over the fatal shooting of tribe member Emil Mann in a 2006 confrontation with a state park ranger over illegal ATV riding was tried to a $2.1 million verdict in 2011, plus $150,000 in punitive damages.
One of the lawyers for Mann’s family, Emma Freudenberger, of New York’s Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, says the state subsequently settled for the full amount of the verdict plus hundreds of thousands in legal fees.
More than 700 tribe members sued Ford Motor Company in 2006 seeking $2 billion or more for environmental contamination of 900 acres in Ringwood where the company dumped waste products from a plant in Mahwah that closed in 1980. The site was restored to the Superfund list in 2006 after it was discovered that hazardous wastes remained, despite a 10-year remediation effort by the company.
The case settled in 2009 on confidential terms but the Bergen Record reported that the sum was $10 million.