Over Protests of Racism, ‘The Clansman’ Opens in Los Angeles

Feb. 6, 1915, The Clansman,

Feb. 9, 1915: The Los Angeles premiere of D.W. Griffith’s “The Clansman” (later retitled “The Birth of a Nation”) provokes protests and an attempt to prevent Clune’s Auditorium from showing the film, which was based on Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman.”

Opposition to “The Clansman” was led by the Rev. Charles Edward Locke, who said:

“While the mechanical construction of the picture is remarkable yet the theme is to be unequivocally denounced as serving no educational or patriotic or entertainment purpose. It opens afresh wounds that have taken more than a generation to heal. It cannot help but arouse sectional antipathy and revive much of the animosity which prevailed between the North and South 50 years ago… It is a libel against the white people of the South and it is a positive blackmail against the Negro.”

The Los Angeles Board of Censors (yes, there was such a thing) saw a rough cut of the film and approved it, with a few deletions.  W.H. Clune, the owner of Clune’s Auditorium at Olive and 5th, announced that he would show the picture regardless of attempts to halt the film.

“The unexpected opposition to the exhibition of this film has been due to a misunderstanding of the great historical purpose of the picture, which is not an attack on any race or section of the country. It is a most powerful sermon against war and in favor of brotherly love of all sections and nations,” The Times said.

Grace Kingsley follows with a feature on making “The Clansman” and ends by saying: “And now, as one last great difficulty, comes the protest of the darkies and the interference of the police against the exhibition of the picture next week at Clune’s Auditorium.”

Henry Christeen Warnack,who covered the opening for The Times, said that the movie was delayed by the LAPD on orders of the City Council. D.W. Griffith, meanwhile, obtained a court injunction barring interference with the film.

At the intermission, A.P. Tugwell, head of the Board of Censors, addressed the audience, explaining what the censors had done and the dispute over showing the picture. Usherettes in period costumes circulated among the audience, asking people to sign petitions that urged the City Council to let the film be shown.

Columnist Harry Carr followed up with the results of a hearing over the injunction Griffith obtained to bar the City Council from banning the picture.

“In deciding the injunction case yesterday, Judge Jackson addressed a few words to the colored people who half-filled the courtroom.

He told them that, while he did not approve of the play himself, he advised them to stop talking about it and to calm their stormy agitation. ‘There is a certain feeling between the races and there always will be as long as both live in this country,’ said the court. ‘But the production of this play will neither make the position of the colored people better nor worse and it will have no effect whatever upon the standing of the colored citizens of this community.”

As Carr pointed out, the dispute over the film was a bonanza of free publicity.

Thanks to Mary Mallory for pointing out the anniversary!

Feb. 6, 1915, The Clansman,
Jan. 31, 1915, The Clansman

Feb. 2, 1915, The Clansman

Feb. 6, 1915, The Clansman
Feb. 7, 1915, The Clansman

Feb. 9, 1915, The Clansman

Feb. 9, 1915, The Clansman

Feb, 11, 1915, The Clansman

Feb, 11, 1915, The Clansman

Feb, 11, 1915, The Clansman
Feb. 11, 1915, The Clansman

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1915, Crime and Courts, Film, Hollywood, LAPD, Theaters and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Over Protests of Racism, ‘The Clansman’ Opens in Los Angeles

  1. It beats me how present-day Hollywood–such an enclave of Progressivism and far-left loons–STILL adulates D.W. Griffith. “Birth of a Nation” is not art, it is cleverly crafted propaganda, no more (or less) admirable than a film by Lennie Riefenstahl. It’s close to the meeting the classic limitation on free speech: gratuitously crying “fire” in a crowded theatre. As for technique, all of those transitions and SFX were invented by Georges Melies a decade or more earlier.


    • Eve says:

      Well, now, “Leonard” Riefenstahl and Griffith were great filmmakers, everything else aside. Griffith did not, however, “invent” the close-up or irising or any of the other things he was credited with.


  2. Mary Mallory says:

    All of Hollywood doesn’t adore DWG; the Directors Guild removed his name from the Achievement Award.


  3. Cory Franklin says:

    It is undeniable Birth of a Nation is one of the greatest films ever made, just as it is undeniable Triumph of the Will is one of the greatest films ever made, however odious their message.
    We have to separate their politics from their quality as films. A third example would be Battleship Potemkin.
    It is one of the ironies of life that three of perhaps the top 20 films ever done contain political messages, that are distasteful but it is a lesson in observing film as art rather than for its political content. I don’t appreciate reviewers who give good reviews to bad films that happen to have a political message they agree with.
    Most films that try to do what these three did are terrible films. These three are the notable exceptions.


  4. What’s funny to me is how Hollywood really hasn’t changed that much in one hundred years. African Americans still aren’t in a position to take control over our images.


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