An opening weekend ban on director John Singleton's new film "Poetic Justice" at Universal City's hugely popular theater complex triggered charges of racism and censorship Saturday from moviegoers, studio sources and civil rights leaders.
"I would hope that the studios would initiate some dialogue with representatives from the black community because this is a little thing that could become a big thing," said the Rev. Cecil Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, whose congregation includes many of Los Angeles' most influential African-Americans.
Cineplex Odeon, which operates the 18 theaters at Universal City--the nation's largest-grossing theater complex--said the film was not being screened because of fears that it might draw trouble to Universal Studio's adjacent CityWalk, which features a string of trendy shops and restaurants.
"Our film programmers in Los Angeles are ensuring that the theater is programmed with an upscale demographic to make sure that CityWalk's environment is kept safe with a family atmosphere," the theater chain said in a prepared statement.
Cineplex has agreed to screen "Poetic Justice" at Universal beginning Wednesday, a spokesman for Columbia Pictures, which made the film, said Saturday. Generally, incidents of violence at films with a black urban setting have occurred during opening weekends only.
The decision not to show the film on its important and lucrative opening weekend throws a harsh spotlight on the extent of theater owners' fears about audiences that turn out for movies featuring predominantly black casts.
One angry studio executive said Saturday that the theater group's decision smacked of racism.
"This is really apartheid disguised under the name 'demographics,' " said the executive, who requested anonymity. "Just at the moment when the rest of America is accepting black movies as never before, Universal City is going the other way . . . What's next? Separate drinking fountains?"
"Poetic Justice," starring pop star Janet Jackson, opened at theaters throughout Southern California on Friday without reports of violence. That night, "Poetic Justice" grossed $4.4 million in 1,273 theaters nationwide, making it the highest-grossing film of the night.
The movie was written and directed by Singleton, a native of South-Central Los Angeles who received an Oscar nomination for his first film, "Boyz N the Hood," a gritty look at inner-city life in Los Angeles and the destructiveness of gangs. "Poetic Justice," on the other hand, is chiefly a story of romance and optimism with virtually no violent scenes--a fact that has fueled skepticism over why the movie was banned from Universal City screens.
Singleton could not be reached for comment on the controversy. He reportedly drove around Los Angeles Friday night visiting theaters showing his movie, as is common with directors on the opening weekends of their movies.
But the film's associate producer, Dwight Williams, said he is not going to "let this distract me from how proud I am to have been part of the film."
Asked if the Cineplex decision had racist overtones, Williams said: "I don't know if it's racist or just plain fear of black people at their newly created CityWalk. . . . Just because a film attracts young black people doesn't mean that young black people together are going to have to start a fight."
A spokesman for Columbia Pictures said the company screened it for theater owners July 7 and has been negotiating with Cineplex Odeon since late last week to try to make sure the film would be shown on its screens. Columbia is said to have offered to provide extra security to a handful of theaters, including those at Universal City.
"Columbia did everything we could to secure the play date at Universal City," said Columbia spokesman Mark Gill. Asked why Cineplex made its decision, Gill said: "They did not give us a reason."
No one from the Cineplex Odeon chain or MCA, the company that owns Universal Studios and 49% of Cineplex Odeon, could be reached for comment on why "Poetic Justice" was not being screened this weekend at Universal City or the chain's other Los Angeles-area theaters. A Columbia executive was quoted Friday in the Hollywood Reporter, a trade paper, as saying the film was being shown in about 100 Cineplex theaters in the United States and Canada.
Over the last several years, there have been incidents of violence associated with the opening weekends of other movies featuring black casts and sometimes with gang-related themes, such as "New Jack City" and "Boyz N the Hood." Two years ago, at the opening of "Boyz N the Hood" at Universal City, shots were fired in a theater wounding three people. Universal City also did not play "Posse," a black-themed Western, when it opened in May.
For the most part, moviegoers Saturday were critical of Cineplex Odeon's decision.
"It's like they don't want black folks around, especially if they are young and male," said Billy Willis, 18, as he left a screening of the film at the Pacific 4 Theatres in the Sherman Oaks Galleria. "What are we, a disease?"
"It's ironic," said Carmen Ortega, 26, of Sherman Oaks. "People ask why we all can't get along. Well, this is why."
At Woodland Hills' General Cinemas, where the movie was being shown on two screens to packed houses, 20-year-old Reseda resident Nicole Rodgers said "Poetic Justice" was less violent than other movies now in release.
"If they are doing it because there is too much violence in it, I would understand. But I've seen both 'The Firm' and 'Poetic Justice,' and 'The Firm' was much more violent. And I saw it at Universal City."
Times staff writers David Freed, Julie Tamaki and Timothy Williams contributed to this story.