Ava DuVernay (Instagram), When They See Us (Netflix)

Netflix and acclaimed director Ava DuVernay have settled a defamation lawsuit brought by former New York City prosecutor Linda Fairstein over her portrayal in the miniseries “When They See Us.”

The legal dispute, which revolved around Fairstein’s depiction in the dramatization of the Central Park Five case, has been closely watched by industry insiders due to its potential implications on creative liberties in portraying real-life events.

The Settlement

The agreement, announced Tuesday, comes just as the trial was set to commence next week.

Under the terms of the settlement, Netflix will move a disclaimer stating that certain events in the series were dramatized from the end credits to the beginning of each episode.

Additionally, Netflix will donate $1 million to the Innocence Project.

Fairstein will not receive any monetary payout.

Ava DuVernay’s Stance

Ava DuVernay, the visionary behind “When They See Us,” expressed her disappointment in not taking the case to trial.

In her statement, she highlighted the responsibilities she believes Fairstein held during the investigation and prosecution of the Central Park Jogger case.

I believe that Linda Fairstein was responsible for the investigation and prosecution of the Central Park Jogger case that resulted in the wrongful conviction of five innocent Black and Brown boys.

As the head of the Manhattan Sex Crimes unit, Linda Fairstein was in the precinct for over 35 hours straight while the boys were interrogated as adults, often without parents present.

Fairstein knew what was going on inside those interrogation rooms and controlled who entered, blocking one of the mothers from being with her 15-year-old son.

Felicity Huffman as Linda Fairstein in Netflix’s ‘When They See Us’ (Courtesy of Netflix)

Linda Fairstein’s Claims

Linda Fairstein, portrayed by Felicity Huffman in the series, sued for defamation in 2020, alleging that the series falsely depicted her actions and responsibilities.

She claimed that certain plot points were reverse-engineered to make her the central villain of the story.

Fairstein sought damages of up to $8 million and demanded that Netflix remove the allegedly defamatory scenes and place a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode.

Fairstein’s lawyer, Kara Gorycki, issued a statement reflecting on the settlement:

It is our sincere hope that this settlement serves as a wakeup call to Netflix and other media companies that they have a responsibility to show fidelity to the truth when portraying real human beings and should not attempt to profit from the utterly false villainization of people, as they did in Linda’s case.

When They See Us

The Controversial Scenes

The lawsuit highlighted several key scenes from “When They See Us” that Fairstein alleged were defamatory.

In one particularly contentious scene, Huffman’s character orders NYPD officers to Harlem, declaring, “Every young Black male who was in the park last night is a suspect in the rape of that woman who is fighting for her life right now. You go into those projects and you stop every little thug you see. You bring in every kid who was in the park last night.”

In another scene, Fairstein’s character is accused of coercing the boys’ confessions.

The case took a pivotal turn last year when U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel ruled that five scenes could be considered defamatory, allowing the lawsuit to proceed to trial.

Judge Castel stated, “A reasonable jury could conclude by clear and convincing evidence that the decision to make Fairstein ‘the face’ of the system and the central ‘villain’ caused defendants to act with actual malice by recklessly imputing conduct to Fairstein that is unsupported by the writers’ substantial body of source materials.”

Netflix’s lawyers, Bart Williams and Natalie Spears, responded strongly to Fairstein’s claims of vindication:

Any suggestion by Linda Fairstein that she was vindicated by bringing this lawsuit is ludicrous.

Ms. Fairstein caved completely on the eve of trial, faced with the prospect of cross-examination before a New York jury as to her conduct and character.

Having spent millions of dollars in attorney’s fees, Ms. Fairstein walked away with no payment to her or her lawyers of any kind.

She accomplished nothing — other than moving one sentence of the disclaimer from the end credits to the opening credits, four years after 24 million people had already seen the series.

The Settlement

The settlement marks the end of a contentious legal battle that has significant implications for the entertainment industry.

While Fairstein’s portrayal in “When They See Us” will continue to be a topic of debate, the resolution underscores the delicate balance between artistic expression and factual representation in dramatizations of real-life events.

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Source: The Hollywood Reporter

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