New Film, ‘Out of the Furnace,’ Accused of Stereotyping Ramapough Indians
By Corey Kilgannon
MAHWAH, N.J. — The past week has been unsettling for the Ramapough Mountain Indians, who live on this northern stretch of the Appalachian Mountains that overlooks the Manhattan skyline and wealthy parts of Bergen County. The new movie “Out of the Furnace,” featuring a star-studded cast that includes Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, also features numerous negative references to the Ramapoughs. They include a fight-ring subplot.
Keith Van Dunk, 27, a member of the tribe, took a break from feeding the chickens at his father’s house up on Stag Hill here on Sunday morning and gestured at the surrounding woods.
“You see any fight ring up here?” he said. “Absolutely not.”
Tribal leaders and local elected officials held a news conference last week, speaking out against a film that they claim portrays them as trashy backwoods bumpkins involved in drugs and violence. One Ramapough henchman in the movie even bears Mr. Van Dunk’s last name.
The references constitute a “hate crime” that has “stained the community and stirred up animus” by increasing marginalization and stigmatization, said the Ramapoughs’ chief, Dwaine C. Perry, 66, in an interview.
In the past few days, he said, there had been several instances of Ramapough students in local high schools being picked on by classmates who had seen the film, including one case in which a teacher had to intervene.
At a showing of the movie last weekend, someone hurled slurs at a Ramapough woman in the theater, he said. There was also a fight at a local mall that tribal members said was stirred up by the film.
“The film contains ugly stereotypes that stain you for life,” Chief Perry said. “The undertones are racist and personal. It’s a hate crime when you look at the psychological impact on the kids.”
Contacted for comment, the film’s production company, Relativity Media, released a statement saying that the film is “entirely fictional” and not “based upon any particular person or group of people.”
“As is the case with most films, the filmmakers conducted research and drew upon their own personal life experiences in creating an original screenplay, and the story and the characters are entirely fictional,” the statement read.
Scott Cooper, who directed the film and co-wrote the script, was unavailable for comment Wednesday night. But a Relativity Media spokesman said that John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, Pa. — the other main setting in the film — had nothing but praise for the way the movie portrayed Braddock. Mr. Fetterman called it a respectful depiction that was “eloquent, forceful and honest,” in a guest column he wrote for Variety magazine.
Several characters in the film have last names that are prevalent Ramapough names, including De Groat and Mann. The film was not shot in the area, but the Bergen County Police Department is portrayed as the local authority.
Mr. Van Dunk said he refused to buy a ticket to the film, but he consulted the IMDB website and saw that several cast members were listed as “Jackson White.”
The term “Jackson White” is a slur used by outsiders to deride the Ramapoughs, Mr. Van Dunk said, referencing the tribe’s descent from Native Americans, whites and runaway slaves who settled in the mountains in the late 18th century. The term dredges up decades of a long, ugly history of discrimination and marginalization.
“To me, it’s like calling a black person the N-word, and my father is black,” said Mr. Van Dunk, who works for a moving company in Hackensack. “In high school, kids would call me a Jackson White in the hallway, and if I stuck up for myself, they’d say I’m living up to the stereotype.”
Before the opening of the film, which was the third-grossing film in the country last weekend, The New York Post published an article saying that it depicts the Ramapoughs as “New Jersey hillbillies.” The article characterized tribe members as unsophisticated, intermarrying types who are ridiculed, who hunt and eat squirrels, and who drive all-terrain vehicles on dirt roads.
“After reading in The Post about the Ramapoughs being a bunch of hillbillies eating squirrels, I drove into Manhattan the first night it opened to see the film for myself,” said Mahwah Mayor William C. Laforet. He added that a mine depicted in the film appears to be modeled on the local Abex foundry, now shuttered.
“There are numerous connections, factual and implied, and now the producers are backpedaling and saying it’s fictional,” Mr. Laforet said. “It’s unfair to the folks on the mountain to resurrect those stereotypes. It’s a disgraceful depiction of that community.”
The mayor also said he feared the fight-club element would lead teenagers to test Ramapough children. Local school officials have been “keenly sensitive” to watching for discrimination against students from Ramapough families in the wake of the film, he said, stepping up what has already been a “zero tolerance policy” in recent years regarding discrimination against Ramapough children.
The mayor said he feared the film could add to the longstanding problem of young people driving to Mahwah to take joy rides on the roads of Stag Mountain.
“It’s going to bring outsiders to the mountain looking for some Wild West,” he said. “This isn’t the backwoods of Kentucky — it’s within eyeshot of New York City.”
The Ramapough people trace their roots back thousands of years to the Lenape tribe. Now there are perhaps 5,000 members living in mountainous areas around the border with New York.
For a group long known as “mountain people,” the film is another in a long line of indignities, which include a lack of federal recognition as a tribe, despite gaining official recognition decades ago from New York and New Jersey.
There was the humiliation a few years back of becoming the butt of late-night jokes, after the Ramapoughs’ practice of hunting and eating squirrels drew governmental warnings regarding lead levels in squirrels at a local Superfund site. Then there was the unusually high level of health problems that tribal members connected to toxin dumping by the Ford Motor Company. When the tribe wanted to apply for a casino permit, even Donald Trump joined the fight against it.
Regarding the influx of joy riders, Elmore Wilson, a tribal member who lives on Stag Hill, said they had been on the increase.
“One of them just busted my windshield,” said Mr. Wilson, 54, as he stood on his front lawn on Sunday with his son, Michael Wilson, 24, near the tribal headquarters. Elmore Wilson, a security guard at Ramapo College, said he sat Michael down years ago and gave him the Ramapough facts of life.
“I told him, ‘This is what you’re going to be facing because of where we live,’ ” he recounted. “You’re going to hear we’re a bunch of inbreds, all kinds of stuff. You just got to let it roll off your back.” Nicole Ginsburg, 21, who works the counter at Jersey Boys pizza parlor at the foot of Stag Hill, said some local residents made fun of the Ramapough members as banjo-playing hillbillies.
“Some of the Mahwah kids call them inbred,” she said. “One kid said, ‘Oh, you don’t want to bump into a Jackson White up there.’”
As for Mr. Van Dunk, before returning to his chickens, he said he was rethinking his future.
“Right now, my pride keeps me here, but I guess I’ll have to move as my kids get older,” he said. “I don’t want them growing up with people looking at them funny.”