Black residents allege discrimination at film studio town

Nov 17, 2022, 1:17 PM | Updated: 10:52 pm

ATLANTA (AP) — A group of Black residents have filed a lawsuit claiming racial discrimination in a housing development associated with the Georgia film studio used to shoot well-known movies and television shows.

The Town at Trilith sits across the street from Trilith Studios, which was originally known as Pinewood Atlanta Studios, and has about 300 homes and about 1,000 residents, the lawsuit says.

The five current and former residents allege they experienced racial discrimination by the development’s management and faced retaliation when they raised concerns, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Fulton County Superior Court.

The suit alleges violations of the Georgia Fair Housing Act by Trilith Studios, Trilith Development and two homeowner associations.

Trilith Development said in a statement that it is “committed to a living and working environment where everyone feels welcome and that they belong.” Despite ongoing efforts to address concerns that have been shared, the statement says, “some have publicly portrayed a narrative that differs from the many experiences occurring daily in our community.”

Trilith Studios said in a statement that the five residents never had any relationship with the studios. Both the studio and the development company said they will address the lawsuit’s claims “in the appropriate forum.”

The Town at Trilith and Trilith Studios are presented as “an open inclusive, diverse community for all types of people,” the lawsuit says. That reputation is bolstered by partnerships with companies like Disney, Marvel and Netflix, which “espouse and promote values of openness, diversity and inclusion,” the suit adds. But the “lived reality at Trilith has been one of racial discrimination,” the residents who filed the suit allege.

Lawyer Michael Jo’el Smith said his clients want to recover damages for harm done and to expose the hypocrisy of the studio in Fayetteville, about 25 miles south of downtown Atlanta.

“Trilith gives lip service to say they value these principles of diversity that attract these Black stories to be produced at their studio, while at the same time not caring about the actual lives of Black people that are there living in that town,” Smith told The Associated Press.

Aubrey and Pamela Williams were among the earliest residents, arriving in 2018 and hoping it would be a nurturing environment where they could heal after the loss of their 21-year-old son. They participated in community events, volunteered and were featured in promotional videos to attract new residents, they said in a phone interview.

“They were really adamant about creating a place for creatives, a place you can live, work, play, a place that’s inclusive for everyone,” Aubrey Williams said.

But when the roof of their townhome began leaking soon after they moved in, their repeated requests to have it replaced were ignored, they said. At the same time, the roofs of townhomes owned by non-Black residents were quickly fixed or replaced. They say they also weren’t allowed to install a firepit or pergola in their backyard, while non-Black residents were allowed to do so.

By the time they left Trilith in July, they said, they felt disillusioned and disappointed.

Mela Geipel’s son was using the development’s basketball courts in May 2021 when an employee or representative of the management called police to report an unauthorized person using the courts, the lawsuit says. An officer followed Geipel’s son home. When she asked why her son was reported when white residents were not, management refused to provide justification, the lawsuit says.

Keyania Otobor moved into her townhome in 2019 and still lives there. She was attracted by the diversity, walkability and sense of community, she said.

In March, she was visiting Carmen Key, who also is Black, when Key’s white neighbor banged on her door looking for her husband and called Otobor and Key a racial slur, in an exchange recorded by Key’s doorbell camera, Otobor said.

“I was appalled. I’ve never had anybody, to my knowledge, say that about me,” Otobor said.

There had been other complaints of the woman harassing residents because of their race, and the management had not taken any action, the lawsuit says.

Trilith Development said that episode demonstrated “abhorrent behavior that runs counter to everything Trilith stands for.” Trilith Development said it condemned it immediately, including communications to the community and the resident.

Trilith Studios and Trilith Development are jointly owned by the family of Dan Cathy, chairman of fast-food giant Chick-fil-A, and Cathy is involved in their day-to-day management and operation, the lawsuit says.

In March, Otobor, the Williamses and Key organized a community meeting to discuss racial discrimination and potential violations of the Georgia Fair Housing Act. The roughly 60 attendees elected Key, who is not a plaintiff in the suit, to arrange a meeting with Cathy to discuss their concerns. Key, who worked as a contractor at Trilith Studios, was then banned from accessing Trilith Studios property, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that these actions were meant to send an intimidating message to Black residents.

“It’s the aggregate of these stories that tells you that there is a systemic problem at Trilith,” Smith, the lawyer, said.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Black residents allege discrimination at film studio town