January 17, 2008 / 12:30 AM / 12 years ago

Drug agents sue NBC over "American Gangster"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three former Drug Enforcement Administration agents filed a $55 million defamation lawsuit against the movie studio that made “American Gangster” on Wednesday, claiming it tarnished hundreds of reputations.

A scene from "American Gangster". Three former DEA agents filed a $55 million defamation lawsuit against the movie studio that made "American Gangster" on Wednesday, claiming it tarnished hundreds of reputations. REUTERS/Universal Pictures/Handout

The film follows the rise and fall of former Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, portrayed by Denzel Washington. His empire undercut the price and quality of heroin sold by the Mafia and when he was caught, Lucas turned informant.

Former DEA agents Louis Diaz, Gregory Korniloff and Jack Toal said NBC Universal, the owner of Universal Studios, falsely claimed the movie was based on a true story and misrepresented the events surrounding Lucas and New Jersey Detective Richard Roberts, depicted by Russell Crowe.

The movie hurt the agents’ reputations by falsely claiming in text at the end that a collaboration between Lucas and Roberts “led to the convictions of three-quarters of New York City’s Drug Enforcement Agency” agents between 1973 and 1985, according to the suit, which seeks class action status.

“With this utterly false and defamatory statement, the defendant has ruined and impugned the reputations of these honest and courageous public servants in the eyes of millions of people,” the suit said.

NBC Universal, owned by General Electric, denied the allegations, saying: “American Gangster does not defame these, or any, federal agents.”

“The end legend specifically refers to members of ‘New York City’s Drug Enforcement Agency’ — not the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, where the plaintiffs formerly worked. We believe the lawsuit is entirely without merit,” NBC Universal said.

The lawsuit said the public believed the film’s text referred to federal DEA agents, not police officers, and regardless, no New York police officers were convicted as a result of Lucas’ cooperation.

The movie, starring Oscar-winners Washington and Crowe, grossed $127 million, according to the lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court. The suit seeks to stop the film’s distribution or change the text at the end of the film and turn over all of its profits to a fund for federal DEA agents.

The Drug Enforcement Administration was not immediately available for comment.

“The only reason people went to see the film is because they thought it was a true story when really it is a pack of lies,” said Dominic Amorosa, a lawyer for the plaintiffs told Reuters.

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