Docudrama or Defamation?

Could a docudrama be considered defamation?

docudramaPerri “Pebbles” Reid, the founder and former manager of all-girl R&B group TLC, filed a $40 million defamation lawsuit against Viacom on grounds that the recent VH1 film “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story” constituted defamation. However, Viacom argued that then film falls under the docudrama category and, as a result, does not constitute defamation. 

The back-and-forth begs the question, where is the line drawn between docudrama and defamation? 

Both sides make their cases for and against defamation

Viacom issued a memo which sought to explain that the docudrama genre of film does not constitute defamation, and that, due to the fact that “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story” falls within that category, it is not defamatory, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The company also presented numerous pieces of evidence – including letters, news articles, raw film and publishing contracts – which prove that the movie does not cast Reid in a false light. 

Reid stated that she is upset over numerous aspects of her character in the film, such as scenes when the manager forces members of TLC to sign a contract and pays group members only $25 per week. She says that these scenes are false, and as a result defamatory. 

However, the Viacom memo named films such as “Selma,” “The Social Network,” “Ray,” “Walk the Line,” “What’s Love Got To Do With It?,” as similar films within the docudrama genre. The document states that “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story” is similar to the aforementioned movies in its style and depiction of characters. It goes on to note that since the narrative is told from the perspective of the surviving members of TLC, the scenes depicted are not so much fact as personal accounts of various situations. 

The memo goes on to state that just because the film does not depict the members of TLC reading the contract given to them by Reid, that does not mean they didn’t actually do so. Additionally, it goes on to state that the $25 weekly salary was clearly temporary as shown in the film. 

Can a depiction be defamatory in the context of a docudrama?

Viacom goes on to argue that the court must examine an allegedly defamatory statement in the context in which it was published. In this case, the context is a docudrama, and as a result, the scenes which Reid alleges to be defamatory must be looked at within the context of that drama, as opposed to a documentary or newspaper article, both of which purport to espouse fact. 

Docudrama films heighten tension and work to create dramatic scenery out of not always dramatic real-life events. As a result, there is nearly always bound to be at least one individual upset over how he or she is depicted in one of these movies. 

If your docudrama is facing a lawsuit, or you are displeased with the way you were portrayed in a film, it is important to look at the instances of alleged defamation within the context of the genre, as well as pore over source material used for the movie. 

If you are having trouble determining whether a depiction in a movie may be considered defamation, speak with an entertainment law attorney to learn more.

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Anthony R. Caruso is a business transactional attorney in New York and New Jersey with experience in structuring, negotiation and completion of legal deals involving business, entrepreneurs, athletes and performers.

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