Screenwriters Bring Copyright Infringement Suit Against Director Nate Parker’s Movie, “American Skin”

Steven T. Lowe

On October 20, 2021, Plaintiffs Selton Shaw, Langston Shaw, and their production company, Changing the World Films, filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, for copyright infringement against multiple Defendants, including producers Spike Lee and Nate Parker. Shelton and Shaw are brothers who co-wrote the Screenplay, “A Routine Stop.” The Screenplay focuses on police violence, depicting twin brothers who are pulled over during a traffic stop. During the stop, one of the brothers is killed by a white officer, but the grand jury decides not to indict the officer for murder. The surviving brother takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps the officer. There is a show trial at gunpoint that is broadcast to the public, and the officers ultimately admit to their fault in the crime. The Screenplay ends with the arrest of the brother. In 2017, Plaintiffs submitted their Screenplay to the TV One Screenplay Competition, but it did not win.

In 2019, Nate Parker, a Hollywood filmmaker, premiered his film “American Skin,” at the Venice Film Festival. “American Skin” was promoted as a “Spike Lee Presentation,” at the festival. Plaintiffs allege that “American Skin,” has substantial similarities to their Screenplay “A Routine Stop.” According to Plaintiffs, “American Skin” depicts a father and son who are pulled over during a traffic stop, and the son is killed by the officer. The grand jury fails to indict the officers, leading the father to storm the police station and take the officer and others hostage. A show trial is conducted at gunpoint and eventually, the officer admits that he profiled the son, which inevitably led the officer to shoot him. The film ends with a sniper killing the father.

In addition to the similarities of the plot, Plaintiffs argue multiple theories of Defendant’s access to Plaintiff’s Screenplay. Plaintiffs claim that Parker has an indirect relationship with the TV One Competition because it is judged in partnership with the American Black Film Festival (ABFF). Parker is involved with the ABFF; he first presented his movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” at the annual ABFF. Therefore, Plaintiffs believe Parker was likely a judge for the screenplay competition, or otherwise had access to the Screenplay through colleagues.

The Shaws and Changing the World Films are represented by Joshua I. Schiller, Benjamin Margulis and Chloe M. Houdre of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, and Leonard Bennett of Bennett & Bennett Law Group LLC.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available on Wednesday.

The case is Changing the World Films LLC et al. v. Parker et al., case number 1:21-cv-02787, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.