No canceling the ‘Birth’ debate

Times Staff Writer

The Silent Movie Theatre in the Fairfax district hosted its own off-screen drama this week as dozens of protesters and disappointed patrons clashed over the abrupt cancellation of a public screening of D.W. Griffith’s Civil War epic “The Birth of a Nation.”

The controversial film, as widely hailed for its groundbreaking cinematic techniques as it is deplored for its grotesque racism, was supposed to kick off a weekly series of notable silent films at the theater, but was suddenly pulled Monday morning after angry protests from civil rights groups and anonymous threats forced the theater’s owner, Charlie Lustman, to reconsider. The 1915 film lionizes the Ku Klux Klan and portrays blacks as buffoons and criminals.

“We’re pleased the owner had enough respect for the community to stop” the screening, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a community activist and head of the National Alliance for Positive Action. “But this is bigger than just ‘Birth of a Nation.’ It’s about the damaging effects of horrible images that still resonate almost 100 years later.”

Dozens of theatergoers, unaware of the controversy and the late cancellation, arrived Monday evening only to be greeted by a box-office sign apologizing for any inconvenience and activists distributing literature denouncing the film. Reactions from filmgoers ranged from stony silence to angry outbursts.


“I saw ‘Fahrenheit 9/11' and ‘The Passion of the Christ’ -- I like controversial films,” said Rick Crowell, 57, a retired computer programmer who drove in from Irvine to see the movie. “I don’t believe in censoring anything.”

Frustrated filmgoers came and went for more than two hours, often stopping to debate activists on the theater’s sidewalks, usually in civil tones, sometimes less so, before returning to their cars.

Almost everyone agreed that the three-hour film, which features white actors in blackface attempting to rape a white woman, is horribly racist. The point of heated contention was whether it was appropriate for public viewing in a theater.

The film is available for rental at many video stores and is sometimes shown in film and black studies courses. But because of its controversial nature, it’s rarely shown in theaters.


Monday marked the second time in four years that a scheduled showing of the film at the Silent Movie Theatre was canceled because of protests and threats. In August 2000, the theater scheduled a screening to coincide with the Democratic National Convention, but the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People led a protest to stop it.

Activists argue that the film’s offensiveness far outweighs any artistic merit or historical perspective that could possibly be derived from it. Further, they fear the film might motivate some white audience members to commit hate crimes against blacks.

“It’s horse manure,” said Stephanie Evans, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles. “It’s akin to showing a 1940s documentary by Germans about the Holocaust that tells us how bad the Jews are. It’s never appropriate to show it.”

However, others, such as Hutchinson, contended that screening the film under controlled circumstances could be educational. In a film studies class, for instance, with a scholar present to identify the manipulation and the negative imagery, students could learn a vivid lesson about the nation’s racist past.


“It’s important to remember the grotesque images that have come down through the years in television sitcoms like ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ stem from this movie,” Hutchinson said.

But many filmgoers said such arguments disregard the intelligence of audiences who can recognize the film’s obvious racism and still appreciate its original and inventive cinematic techniques. The marketplace of ideas should determine whether the film is shown, not political correctness or threats, they said.

“Do you honestly think I’m going to walk out and lynch someone?” asked Jeff Kausch, a former film student from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan who engaged in a brief shouting match with activists. “You have a right to protest and I have a right to see this film.”

Lisa Jay, who is Chinese American, also objected to the cancellation.


“I’m a minority and I’m sensitive to this kind of thing,” said the 44-year-old ad designer from Los Angeles. “But I still want to make up my own mind.”

But at least one moviegoer ended up being swayed by the evening’s impromptu street debates. Rabbi Yossi Carron, who came to the theater with his teenage daughter, was persuaded that the film shouldn’t be seen if it promotes hate.

“I’m disappointed, but I understand,” said Carron, wearing a yarmulke in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood. “The world is in terrible shape. I don’t want to do anything that is going to push someone over the edge toward violence.”