Fearing a repeat of a Friday night brawl that led to the wounding of an 18-year-old suspected gang member, the manager of the Hi-Way 39 Drive-In Theatre decided Saturday to cancel the weekend showings of a newly released movie that depicts Latino gang life in Los Angeles.
“We will not be playing it until further notice,” said theater manager Joan Ruth. Saturday and today’s showings were canceled. It had not been determined if showings scheduled for later in the week will also be pulled, she said.
The premiere of the movie, “Angel Town,” the story of a former kick boxer who moves in with a Latino family living in the middle of a gang-infested neighborhood, was marred by a brawl that involved as many as 100 gang members.
As the film was playing on the large outdoor screen, rival gang members wielding baseball bats began smashing car windows and fighting with each other, said Westminster Police Lt. Robert Burnett.
In the wake of the violence, Jesus Martinez Orjel was wounded in the chest by a small-caliber handgun, Burnett said. Martinez, who was picked up by police after he drove away from the theater, was taken to UCI Medical Center in Orange, where he was listed in stable condition.
Burnett said that city and police officials told the theater management that “it would be a good idea” to withhold screening of the movie on Saturday night.
In light of the concerns over additional violence, Burnett said, “the theater has decided on its own to pull the movie. They want to determine if they can resolve the problem before there’s any further violence.”
At least three gangs, two from Santa Ana and one from Westminster, appear to have been involved in the brawl, Burnett said. They were identified as the West Trece gang from Westminster, and the Lopers and the 5th Street gangs, both of Santa Ana.
But other gangs may have been involved, Burnett added. “We have a lot of gang names coming up.”
Meanwhile, “Angel Town’s” producer and director, Eric Karson, staunchly defended the film, claiming that the violence was not sparked by its showing, but by a longstanding feud that must have existed among the moviegoers.
The shooting apparently occurred near the entrance to the packed drive-in at Beach Boulevard and Trask Avenue as the violence spilled out onto the street, police said.
Although several suspected gang members were taken into custody on outstanding warrants, no suspects were identified in the shooting on Saturday, said Lt. Andrew Hall. No other injuries have been reported.
Hall said that the department’s gang detail was investigating the incident.
“We think it is an isolated incident that was the result of the particular chemistry of those involved,” Hall said.
Karson said in a telephone interview Saturday that he did not believe the movie helped spark Friday night’s brawl between gangs.
He also said that the movie is not an examination of gangs, nor does it exploit ongoing gang problems.
“This is a classic conflict between good and evil,” Karson said. “It’s a basic action movie.”
Karson said that the gang violence would have occurred regardless of whether “Angel Town” was playing at the theater. “These guys hang around malls and theaters. You’d have the same problem if you showed ‘Bambi.’ ”
Karson said the area where the film was shown and not the content of the film itself is to blame for any problems. “If you were showing the film in Glendale, you wouldn’t have the gang violence,” he said.
Some people have compared the newly released “Angel Town” to the 1988 feature film “Colors,” which starred Sean Penn and Robert Duvall and was associated with gang violence in movie theaters around the country.
But, Karson said, the two movies are very different. “Colors is a cop movie that uses gangs as a backdrop,” he said. “Our movie is basically a family movie with gangs as a backdrop.”
“Angel Town’s” plot centers on a USC student who goes to live with a Latino family being harassed by a gang and includes several fight scenes between the gang and the protagonist.
The gang depicted in the film is a “composite” of different Los Angeles-area gangs, Karson said. The movie ends on a victorious note when the head of the gang is defeated and the rest of the gang members decide to go their own way rather than continue to bother the family.
Friday night’s showing was the first night of a 40-theater Southern California test marketing for “Angel Town,” he said, adding that it is targeted to men 18 to 25 years old. The movie is being shown in 10 theaters in eight Orange County cities.
Police officials in other cities where the movie is being screened said that while they are aware of the potential for gang violence in the wake of Friday’s incident, they are not increasing police presence.
“I don’t think we are anticipating any problems,” said Anaheim Police Sgt. Fred Roush. “But if there are any problems, the drive-in will call us and we will be there.”
Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith said he supports the decision to stop screening the film if it is determined to have spurred the violence.
“It could well be that movies like this one precipitate the problem,” Smith said. “If that’s the case, I would try to move it out.”
But he warned that the attention should not be on the content of the movie, but on the gang problem itself.
Views on Possible Ban
“The gangs caused the shooting,” he said. “The movie might have brought them to a particular place at a particular time. This is not a movie problem, it’s a gang problem.”
Councilwoman Anita Huseth said that if there appears to be a pattern of violence in other cities, then the movie should be banned.
“I think we need to take a closer look at the movie and perhaps have it removed,” she said.
But Santa Ana City Councilwoman Patricia A. McGuigan sided with the movie’s producer, saying that the film probably did not heighten tensions between gang members who live in her city.
“The fact that a large number of (gang members) went to the theater leads me to think that they had something planned before the movie,” McGuigan said, adding that she opposes censoring the movie in fear of potential gang violence.
“That would take away people’s First Amendment rights,” McGuigan said.