“The Holly” author, Oscar-winner Adam McKay hit with Denver lawsuit over book and documentary

Denver author and filmmaker Julian Rubinstein, who wrote the nonfiction book “The Holly” and directed the documentary based on it, is being sued for defamation along with the book’s publisher and the film’s Oscar-winning executive producer, Adam McKay, according to a lawsuit served in Denver this month.

The legal claim first appeared on May 10 and was amended on July 14 after the release of the documentary, which debuted on the festival circuit at Telluride Mountainfilm weeks earlier. The creative team was served papers earlier this month, Rubinstein said.

The award-winning documentary is based on Rubinstein’s 2021 nonfiction book “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood,” which investigates Denver’s gang scene — specifically, the Bloods-controlled Northeast Park Hill neighborhood. It’s anchored in a profile of, and shooting by, anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts, now a Denver mayoral candidate. A jury found Roberts not guilty of attempted murder in 2015, following a nonfatal shooting that occurred at a peace rally in the area known as Holly Square.

Just before its premiere, producers of “The Holly” movie announced Oscar-winning director McKay (“Don’t Look Up,” “The Big Short”) had joined the already-completed project as executive producer through his company Hyperobject Industries. While the book was busy being praised in June by The New York Times, Rubinstein’s website was airing a response to the first version of the lawsuit, which specifically alleged both libel and slander in its portrayal of sources Sheria Hicks and Pernell Hines.

Hicks and Hines were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Filed by Highlands Ranch attorney Chad A. Atkins, the lawsuit says that Rubinstein incorrectly identified Hicks and Hines as still-active gang members in Park Hill; that Hicks used crack cocaine; that Hicks and Hines were Denver Police Department informants; and that Hines received favorable treatment due to his relationship with the DPD, resulting in 10 criminal charges being dropped.

“We amended the original complaint (because of) new defendants in the movie,” Atkins explained Wednesday. “That was filed in June, and we’ve been serving it since then.”

The lawsuit asks for unspecified monetary compensation for the “damages, injuries and loss caused by defamation,” according to the public filing. That includes lost work and violent threats to their lives, the lawsuit states. It says Rubinstein and his team’s intent was deliberately malicious.

Lawyer Steven D. Zansberg, who is representing Rubinstein and the book’s publisher, FSG/Macmillan, said the lawsuit has “zero chance of success.” The lawsuit includes many allegations that are not even in the book, Rubinstein told The Denver Post on Wednesday. (Zansberg also represents The Denver Post on First Amendment issues.)

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“Please do pay attention to this lawsuit and please follow it as closely as you can,” Rubinstein said, “It’s going to tell you about who’s who in Denver, how urban development and policing work, and why we need to start caring about the lack of oversight in this city.”

Zansberg, in a response letter addressed to Hicks and Hines, acknowledges that the book contained an error — Hines and his son bear identical first, middle and last names, with no indication of one being “Sr.” and other “Jr.” — but says Rubinstein swiftly corrected it upon being alerted to it. That was a full year before Rubinstein was ever contacted about it, he said.

“This lawsuit is one of many obvious attempts to smear and discredit this project that will ultimately be seen as exactly that,” said Rubinstein, a visiting professor of documentary journalism at the University of Denver. “There’s an ocean of falsehoods out there and the reality is that the project exposes a lot of powerful, influential, wealthy and even dangerous people.”