The suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, claims that the movie defamed hundreds of DEA agents and New York City police officers by claiming at the end that Frank Lucas' collaboration with prosecutors "led to the convictions of three quarters of New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency."
According to the lawsuit, no DEA agents or New York City police officers were ever convicted as a result of tips provided by Lucas.
"This is absolutely off the wall," said Dominic Amorosa, who was a prosecutor in the federal case against Lucas in 1975, and now represents the DEA agents.
Amorosa said the filmmakers had unfairly blackened the reputation of agents who risked their lives to put away Lucas and other drug felons in the 1970s and 1980s.
"I don't know what these people were thinking, but they are going to pay for it," he said.
A spokesman for Universal Pictures, Michael Moses, declined to comment Wednesday, but in a Dec. 7 letter to Amorosa, NBC Universal Senior Vice President David Burg said the corrupt law enforcement agents depicted in the film were supposed to be New York City police officers, not DEA agents.
"The film in no way charges or even insinuates wrongdoing on the part of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration," Burg wrote in the letter, which was included in court files. He also called the film a "fictionalized work."
A DEA spokesman in Washington, Garrison Courtney, declined to comment, other than to confirm that none of its agents were ever charged with wrongdoing in the case.
Former DEA agents Jack Toal, Gregory Korniloff and Louis Diaz filed the class-action suit on behalf of themselves and 400 other agents who worked in the city between 1973 and 1985. They asked for at least $50 million in punitive damages.
"Most of the movie is not true," said Toal, who identified himself as one of the agents who worked with Lucas after he became an informant. "If they had said, `this is based on a false story,' it would have been a lot better."
Korniloff said in the suit that he was a lead agent assigned to the case and was present when agents and police officers raided Lucas' home in Teaneck, N.J., in 1975, a scene depicted in "American Gangster."
In the film, which was released in November, corrupt narcotics agents shoot the drug dealer's dog, assault his wife and brazenly steal currency stashed in the house while making the arrest.
The suit said that in real life, the search was carried out legally; nearly $585,000 in currency was seized in accordance with a valid search warrant.
By David B. Caruso