*The family of Melvin B. Tolson, whose story was depicted in the 2007 film “The Great Debators,” is suing its studio, Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films for allegedly misappropriating his name or likeness.
Tolson was a professor at historically black Wiley College who in the 1930s, amidst segregation, led the school’s debate team to a national championship. His family, through the representative David Wayne Semien, has now filed a lawsuit against Harpo Films, The Weinstein Company and MGM, alleging they were “not compensated in any monetary way for the defendants’ commercial use of Mr. Tolson’s name, distinctive attributes and unique life experiences.”
Below, more details of the lawsuit from The Hollywood Reporter:
According to the complaint, when the film was being made Tolson’s son offered producers assistance in the form of recordings of their father for the purpose of Washington’s study. Later, the family was invited and did attend the film’s premiere. Harpo staffers allegedly told the family, “We are going to take care of you.”
“In so doing, defendants dissuaded the plaintiffs from hiring a lawyer and exploited the plaintiffs’ lack of business experience and relative lack of education, as well as their trust in their understanding of the character (mis)represented by Winfrey, Denzel Washington and the defendants,” states the complaint.
The family allegedly later attempted to contact Winfrey, but never got in touch.
Even if they had a qualified lawyer from the outset, would they have gotten anything? Well, maybe.
What “life rights” really constitutes is a covenant not to sue on grounds like right of publicity or defamation. In addition to avoiding hassle, studios often come to these agreements to gain the cooperation of film subjects or their families for publicity purposes. Studios really don’t want to risk releasing a movie with animosity in the background.
The Tolson family may indeed have had some bargaining leverage to exert before “The Great Debaters” came out, but the issue of whether or not they can now collect damages for unauthorized use of their patriarch’s name and life story is an entirely separate issue.
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