Flint businessman sues Michael Moore over 'Fahrenheit 11/9' clip

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Flint businessman is suing filmmaker Michael Moore in federal court over a clip he said was featured in one of his movies without permission.

According to the suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, Darick Clemons used a cell phone to record former U.S. President Barack Obama arriving in his city on May 4, 2016, then posted the clip on YouTube.

The video was used in “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Moore’s documentary that premiered in 2018 and chronicled events surrounding the Donald Trump presidency.

Clemons filed for a federal copyright of the work on May 24, 2021; it was issued the next day, the document states.

Michael Moore speaks with journalists as he attends the premiere for "Fahrenheit 11/9" on the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival at the Ryerson Theatre on Sept. 6, 2018.

He claims in the lawsuit that Moore and the companies involved in the project “intentionally copied and made a derivative work” of his video without “authorization, consent, or knowledge, and … any remuneration to plaintiff.”

The filing says Clemons’ footage appears in the documentary as it segues into a 

segment on the Flint water crisis and "clearly reveals" he, an African American resident, was the one filming the Obama arrival.

The then-president had been promoting the use of lead-removing faucet filters to persuade residents who distrusted the government amid the crisis, which stemmed from officials temporarily using Flint River water in 2014.

The Moore film featured “Flint residents’ negative reaction to that visit, and the effect that the backlash had specifically on African-American voters” in the city, according to the suit.

“Plaintiff’s on-the-ground footage gave defendants a unique, boots-on the-ground perspective on the presidential visit,” said his lawyers with the Michigan-based firm Warner Norcross + Judd. “Plaintiff’s choice of words, his race, and his anticipation of the event provided dramatic value for the story Mr. Moore told in the film. Defendants could not have obtained that perspective from any other source, and it certainly contributed to any success the film had.”

The suit asserts the documentary has generated at least $6.7 million in sales, and “Defendants continue to profit from this film by way of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, and rental sales.”

Clemons alleges his rights were infringed on, a violation of the federal Copyright Act, and Moore misappropriated the man’s right to publicity under Michigan law.

The suit contends Clemons “is entitled to recovery of defendants’ profits attributable to … infringing conduct alleged herein, including from any and all sales of the infringing work, an accounting of a constructive trust with respect to such profits, and an injunction against further distribution of the copyrighted work."

Moore did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night on the suit.

Michael Moore in "Fahrenheit 11/9."

The Flint native rose to fame with “Roger & Me,” a 1989 documentary that chronicled his attempts to meet former General Motors CEO Roger Smith and explore how auto factory closures affected the city.

He went on to produce projects such as “Bowling for Columbine,” which won the 2003 Oscar for best documentary, and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a take on the George W. Bush White House that became the high-grossing documentary of all time.

Moore has drawn criticism for his techniques, which spawned films such as "Michael Moore Hates America” and “Manufacturing Dissent.”

His works have also sparked other litigation.

“Roger & Me” led to a defamation lawsuit from an attorney who appeared in the film and claimed it made him appear racially insensitive, the Associated Press reported. In 1993, Moore was ordered to pay Larry Stecco $6,250 for portraying him in a false light. 

More than a decade later, the Michigan brother of convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols sued Moore over his appearance in “Bowling for Columbine,” claiming the filmmaker libeled and defamed him. 

James Nichols, who lived in Sanilac County, contended statements in the piece could lead viewers to believe he was involved in the bombing. He also claimed the film invaded his privacy and inflicted emotional distress, the AP reported.

In 2005, a federal judge tossed the libel suit, saying the movie was "factual and substantially true."