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!