Spike Lee, Nate Parker sued for copyright infringement over ‘American Skin’

Two independent filmmaking brothers claim that Parker and Lee's 2019 film stole several elements from their 2017 screenplay.

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Spike Lee and Nate Parker were hit with a lawsuit over copyright infringement by independent filmmakers and brothers Selton and Langston Shaw. The Shaws claim that Lee and Parker’s film, American Skin, stole from their screenplay, A Routine Stop.

The Shaw brothers, and their production company, filed the lawsuit against Lee, Parker, and production companies Tiny Giant Entertainment and TM Films Inc., as well as the film’s copyright holder, ASP Film LLC, as reported by The Wrap.

According to documents, the suit claims that Lee, who presented the 2019 film, and Parker, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, copied the themes, storyline, characters and even the logline from their 2017 screenplay.

“We put our blood, sweat and tears into turning a tragic reality of society into a screenplay that would resonate with audiences, only to see someone else earn acclaim and profit from our work,” the Shaw brothers said. “We filed this lawsuit to get back what was wrongfully taken from us.”

American Skin is the story of a Black military veteran, played by Parker, seeking justice for the death of his teenage son, who was killed by police officers during a traffic stop.

The film premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, touted as “A Spike Lee Presentation.” It was then released to selected theaters in January this year, as well as several streaming services, including Amazon, Apple, Vudu and Google Play, according to Deadline.

The complaint reads that the themes between American Skin and A Routine Stop are “identical” and that both screenplays bare “uncanny” similarities.

“In 2017, the Shaw brothers submitted their screenplay to the TV One Screenplay competition, which is a contest organized with and supported by the American Black Film Festival. While the brothers’ screenplay did not win the competition, it was circulated to a group of industry professionals who served as judges. Lo and behold, two years later, American Skin premiered at the Venice Film Festival with plot lines, characters, and themes substantially similar to A Routine Stop.”

In American Skin, Parker’s character holds a police station hostage in order to create a makeshift trial for the officer who shot his son. The complaint states that this plot line draws from the Shaw brothers’ screenplay. “Among other things, in both A Routine Stop and American Skin, the main character, with a group of his friends, kidnaps and puts on a ‘show trial,’” the complaint read.

"American Skin" Red Carpet Arrivals - The 76th Venice Film Festival
VENICE, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 01: Nate Parker and Spike Lee walk the red carpet ahead of the “American Skin” screening during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Sala Giardino on September 01, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

American Skin was Parker’s first film since 2016’s The Birth of a Nation. Parker wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the biopic about the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831. Publicity for the film was mired in controversy over a 1999 rape allegation made against Parker. The movie only grossed just under $17 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo.

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