On Wednesday morning, Time magazine named the “Silence Breakers,” women who had spoken out about sexual harassment, as Person of the Year. And on Wednesday morning, six women did more than talk: They put their names on what they hope will become a class-action lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein, his companies and the people their lawyers describe as part of a larger criminal enterprise.
Certifying a class action, much less one that describes prominent men such as Knicks owner James Dolan and lawyer David Boies as part of an organized criminal effort, can be complicated. But as more details about Weinstein’s behavior emerge — most recently in a report from the New York Times entitled “Weinstein’s Complicity Machine” — the more this legal argument feels like a potent metaphorical description of the people who facilitated and concealed Weinstein’s decades of depredation. Weinstein’s alleged ability to carry off an astonishing list of crimes depended on the participation of a disturbing number of other people.
Wednesday’s lawsuit was filed by a team of attorneys including Steve Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro and Cris Armenta of the Armenta Law Firm. The six women who put their names on the suit are Louisette Geiss, Katherine Kendall, Zoe Brock, Sarah Ann Masse, Melissa Sagemiller and Nannette Klatt. Klatt was the original Jane Doe in a version of this lawsuit filed in California earlier this year; she is now coming forward under her own name.
The horrible power of repetition doesn’t dull the impact of Klatt’s story. In the suit, she says that Weinstein asked her to meet with him in his private office to read a script with him. But just after Weinstein told Klatt she’d been cast, Klatt says he “told her he ‘just needed one more thing from you.’ … Weinstein told Klatt that the role required him to review and approve of her breasts.” When she repeatedly refused, Klatt says, Weinstein ushered her into a dark stairwell where the door locked behind her. When a maintenance worker on another floor finally heard her cries for help, the lawsuit says “the worker immediately asked Klatt if she was coming from Weinstein’s floor.”
That maintenance worker is a useful character in the very ugly saga of Harvey Weinstein: There are people who knew that Weinstein behaved badly, but they were powerless to do more than to issue warnings, affirm the women who confided in them and unlock stairwell doors. According to the lawsuit filed today, the actor Rufus Sewell said to actress Zoe Brock, “Don’t tell me. You’ve been Weinsteined?” after she called him to report a terrifying encounter with the producer, and “warned Brock not to go to sleep [in a hotel room] because Weinstein would be back.” Men like Sewell and that maintenance worker may not have been able to bring Weinstein down. But at least they did the decent thing within the constraints of a flawed system.
The lawsuit filed today provides an intellectual framework for understanding the behavior of another category of people in Weinstein’s orbit. Its blunt language lays bare how the whole operation allegedly functioned, from the companies that tolerated Weinstein’s conduct “so that they could continue to benefit from their lucrative collaborations”; the intelligence firms that “destroyed or concealed evidence” and compiled information on Weinstein’s accusers “to extort those individuals’ silence”; the Weinstein associates and journalists who the lawsuit says formed an alliance to spy on Weinstein’s accusers and intimidate them; and the lawyers who hired the firms, worked out settlements and crafted contracts. At the top of the pyramid are “The Weinstein Participants,” who “determined the members of the Weinstein Sexual Enterprise and assigned each member of the enterprise a task or tasks to fulfill the common purpose of using false pretenses to prevent the publication or reporting of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and to destroy evidence.”
In other words, reportedly Weinstein was the boss, and he had a highly organized hierarchy of underbosses, caporegimes, soldiers and associates working under him.
Dismantling the culture that made Weinstein is a vital but nebulous task. Dismantling the specific organization that empowered, enabled and protected an accused sexual predator and punishing everyone involved is a more concrete undertaking. Hollywood will have to complete that first assignment itself, in a critical test of the industry’s values and capacities. The women who stepped forward today and their lawyers have taken an important step toward tackling the second. And in the process, they’ve helped clarify that the entertainment industry needs to face up not just to flawed norms but to what appears to be monstrous conspiracies.