The gritty gang violence at the heart of the controversial film "Colors" erupted in at least two box office lines here Friday night as the film opened at 53 Los Angeles-area theaters.
About 14 young men apparently representing at least two gang factions exchanged words and then traded blows at about 10 p.m. in front of the Pacific Warner Theater in Huntington Park before police broke up the melee.
Most of the youths fled as police leaped in to restore order, but three young men were taken in for questioning. Officers said that the suspects were not immediately identified, but their gang memberships were presumed by the "colors" that they wore as articles of clothing.
Officers said the only weapon known to have been used was a cane. There were no reports of injuries.
Eight men believed to be gang members were taken into custody by police at the Hollywood Pacific Theater in Hollywood after witnesses reported some pushing and shoving between what appeared to be rival gangs as theater goers waited for the 10:30 p.m. show.
Sgt. J.W. Thompson said one group challenged another to a fight. By the time police arrived, one of the groups had left the scene. The eight apparent gang members were brought in for questioning, Thompson said.
Moments later, two other gang members emerged from the theater and picked a fight with some patrons in line, officers said. The two young men were immediately arrested.
But despite predictions that the movie would spark widespread outbreaks of gang warfare, officials at most of the more than 400 movie houses throughout the country where "Colors" was playing reported no trouble during the motion picture's first screenings.
"No problems," said an assistant manager at the United Artists Coronet Theatre in Westwood where a gang-related slaying on Jan. 30 sparked a recent wave of community concern.
The film played to generally large audiences at most Southland theaters, with sellouts reported at many performances. Audiences were generally young and generally male, but some theaters reported a good family turnout with a broad representation of ages and ethnic groups.
Police were on alert at theaters in scattered cities throughout the country, including Chicago, New York City and Miami, but there were few reports of hostile confrontations.
"I don't know why everybody's so excited," said Martha Reed, who watched the afternoon show at the Coronet. "It's like every other gang movie I've ever seen."
But another man, exiting the afternoon show at the Hollywood Pacific, termed the film "despicable." Identifying himself only as a father and a lifelong Los Angeles resident, the man said, "I swear to God, (during) the whole movie my mind was 50% thinking that something violent was going to happen in the theater."
The film has drawn protests from some politicians and community groups who contend that it glorifies gang life.
Among the groups voicing concern about the film are the Guardian Angels, a self-styled community protection organization, and the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
Outside the Coronet on Friday, half a dozen Guardian Angels carried signs that read, "Colors Will Kill Kids" and "Don't Show Colors in L.A." Other members of the group demonstrated in New York.
On the other hand, Joel Maliniak of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said officials "should be finding solutions to gang problems, rather than prohibiting something from being shown."
Dennis Hopper, who directed "Colors," defended his movie Friday on NBC's "Today Show."
"I know that Abraham Lincoln was shot in a theater, but I don't think it was because of the play he was seeing," Hopper said.
"I'm merely pointing my finger at a problem and saying there's a major problem in Los Angeles," the director said. "It's a crack problem, and it's a problem that kids are killing each other. And it's not a movie problem. The movie can only say, 'Look, this is happening.' "
A number of local theaters deployed security guards--many of them off-duty police officers in plain clothes--to keep an eye on their clientele. At the Cineplex Odeon Fairfax in the Fairfax District, for example, the security guards inside complemented the regular Los Angeles police officers who were passing by on routine patrol outside about every 15 minutes.
The Huntington Park Police Department stationed uniformed officers at the Pacific Warner, and young men wearing hats, shoe laces, outer shirts and other clothing items suspected of displaying gang colors were asked to leave the items outside.
Most of the young men complied--cheerfully for the most part--and Juan Vallejo, manager of the theater, said there were no feelings of hostility until the tensions began building up at about 10 p.m.
At least three local theaters--the United Artists 6 in Montclair, the Upland Cinemas 8 in Upland and the Laemmle Grand Theater in downtown Los Angeles--joined about a dozen others throughout the country that decided not to exhibit the movie, which stars Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as two Los Angeles police officers who fight gang activity. Orion Pictures said some real gang members were used as extras in the film, with off-duty police used as technical advisers.
The film depicts the violent world of the Crips and the Bloods, rival gangs that used the colors blue and red to distinguish themselves.
Officials reported 387 gang-related killings last year in Los Angeles County, where an estimated 600 gangs claim 70,000 members. Since Jan. 1, there have been at least 90 gang-related deaths in the county, and Los Angeles police recently began a series of massive nighttime sweeps in an effort to curb the violence.
Times staff writers Robert W. Stewart and Bob James contributed to this story.