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54 Sudanese Refugees Sue Producers & Screenwriter of ‘The Good Lie’ for Exploitation

54 Sudanese Refugees Sue Producers & Screenwriter of 'The Good Lie' for Exploitation

UPDATE: We received the following statement from one of the defendants in the suit, Black Label Media: “We are very proud of our film, The Good Lie, which was inspired by the stories of thousands of Lost Boys and Girls living here in America. We are equally proud of the great charitable endeavors of the Good Lie Fund, which was created by the filmmakers to support organizations of Lost Boys and Girls both here in America and in Africa. To date the fund has distributed in excess of $500,000 for the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, as well as for many of the accredited 501c3 charitable organizations who support Lost Boys and Girls here in America. We have been fortunate to have the support of countless Lost Boys and Girls throughout the United States who have supported this Film and the Good Lie Fund. Regrettably, the Plaintiffs and their attorneys have made claims that are not supported by the facts or the law. These claims have no merit and will be addressed in due course by the Court. “

The initial report follows below…

Courtesy of Court House News Service

Producers of the Reese Witherspoon drama “The Good Lie” – a film that was, shall we say, not met with much enthusiasm on this blog, to put it lightly – are being sued because they “used the life stories of dozens of survivors of Sudanese genocide without paying them,” claims the Foundation for Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, in a federal lawsuit.

The Atlanta-based foundation and the 54 refugees they support, filed a suit against 6 production companies (Alcon Entertainment, Imagine Entertainment, Good Lie Productions, Black Label Media, Reliance Big Entertainment, Outlaw Productions) and 3 individuals (producers Deborah Jelin Newmyer and Jeffrey Silver; and the film’s screenwriter, Margaret Nagle) on February 19, alleging “fraudulent inducement, unjust enrichment, breach of faith, breach of contract, commercial appropriation, conversion and breach of fiduciary duty.”

Further, the suit claims that the 54 “Lost Boys” partnered with the defendants listed above, to develop a screenplay for a film that would “raise public awareness of the plight of Sudanese refugees” through depiction of their “traumatic personal stories.”

The specifics from Court House News Service, included in the 101-page lawsuit: “After meeting with film producer Robert Newmyer, three of the Lost Boys negotiated a deal with Newmyer and Nagle, according to the complaint. The foundation claims that Newmyer and Nagle “would not allow the script to be used for a film unless and until the Contributing Lost Boys consented after reaching an agreement as to compensation with the future filmmakers/studios.” “Newmyer and Nagle further promised that they would facilitate using the telling of the Contributing Lost Boys’ stories as a catalyst to raise funds for a new foundation to be organized and operated by the Contributing Lost Boys,” the complaint states. The foundation claims that under terms of a joint venture, the Lost Boys participated in interviews recorded by audio or video in Atlanta in 2003 as Newmyer and Nagle developed a screenplay based on the stories. After Newmyer’s unexpected death in December 2005, Nagle tabled the screenplay until 2013 when Paramount Pictures purchased its production rights from Outlaw without the knowledge or consent of the Lost Boys, according to the complaint. Reliance Big Entertainment, Imagine Entertainment, Alcon Entertainment, Black Label Media, and Good Lie Productions obtained rights and associated together as the production team that began filming “The Good Lie” in Atlanta in early 2013, the foundation says. It claims that the production team was aware of its obligations and responsibilities under the joint venture agreement during the various transfers of ownership and production interests. The foundation claims that the Contributing Lost Boys spoke with the movie director Philippe Falardeau, Black Label Media producer Molly Smith and Imagine Entertainment producer Karen Sherwood in a videotaped meeting on April 15, 2013. According to the lawsuit, Smith addressed the Contributing Lost Boys’ concerns at the meeting, saying: “The most important thing that was said here today was you asked a question, ‘Do you feel we should be compensated for your story?’ And, the answer I can say, because it’s my company and my studio, is absolutely.” But over the next few months, counsel for the production companies rejected efforts to cooperate or mediate, and “denied the existence of any agreement with the Contributing Lost Boys or the foundation,” according to the lawsuit. Noticing material from their interviews used in the 2-minute trailer released in June 2014, the Contributing Lost Boys assigned intellectual property rights to their stories and claims to the Foundation for Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, according to the complaint. The lawsuit describes multiple refugee stories that appear in “The Good Lie,” including one about a brother who lied to rebel forces to save a group of younger boys hiding in the grass. The foundation seeks damages for 18 causes of action. It and the 54 Lost Boys are represented by Jason Graham, with Graham and Jensen in Atlanta.”

So, essentially, they seek compensation for what they believe are their contributions (whether agreed upon in a legally binding contract, or incorporated without their expressed consent) to the film’s eventual script. While they didn’t exactly work on the screenplay with the screenwriter, they believe that they were exploited by the film’s producers, as their stories inspired those that fill the pages of the script that would eventually become a movie (one that actually didn’t do very well at the box office, grossing less than $3 million domestically), but they were not compensation, as apparently agreed on.

The suit doesn’t say how much they are seeking in damages.

I took issue with the project from the moment I first learned of its existence. And this lawsuit certainly had nothing to do with it, since I’m finding out about it just this afternoon. I recall when I first saw the trailer for “The Good Lie,” which didn’t exactly tickle my fancy, especially after about a minute and 20 seconds into it, a text lay-over tells us that the project comes from “The Executive Producer of ‘The Blind Side.'” 

Of course, it is,” was my immediate reaction as I grumbled in solo protest at what was in front of me. 

Hollywood seems to revel in stories like this that present limited and overwrought depictions of Africans, especially when there’s an opportunity to insert a white protagonist, if there isn’t already one in the original “based on” narrative. If Reese Witherspoon’s character was a black American woman, would “The Executive Producer of ‘The Blind Side'” be interested in seeing it adapted for the screen?

Let’s recall author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Ted Talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” which we’ve shared on this blog many times.

The so-called “lost boys of Sudan” have been the subject of a handful of documentaries over the last decade, since the signing of a peace treaty that was to end what was the 2nd Sudanese civil war, in 2005. I’d suggest you take a look at those films first, before watching this one – that is, if you plan to. “Lost Boys of Sudan,” and “God Grew Tired of Us,” are two of the more popular titles.  

Playing the refugees in “The Good Lie” are Ugandan-born actor Arnold Oceng (“My Brother The Devil”), South Sudanese actor, model and social activist, Ger Duany (himself once a child soldier), and Emmanuel Jal, a South Sudanese musician and former child soldier as well.

And while I can’t make an argument for why the film shouldn’t exist (and I’m not suggesting that it shouldn’t) – after all, it’s based on real-life stories (and, assuming the above lawsuit is ruled in the favor of the claimants, the storytellers should be properly compensated). But I can encourage Hollywood to embrace other stories about Africans (whether in Africa or in America – and there is an abundance of stories) beyond those tiny few extremes (war, poverty, famine, disease, corruption, or as simpletons) that sadly reflect views that are likely held by much of America.

Read our review of “The Good Lie” here.

I’m not an attorney, and I don’t play one on TV, so, in terms of commentary on the above lawsuit, I’ll leave the legalese to those of you who are pros.

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