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Showing of 'Birth of Nation' canceled

August 10, 2004|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

The owner of the Silent Movie Theatre, saying that his planned Monday screening of D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation" had prompted overwhelming protests and threats against him, yanked the film the day it was scheduled to be shown.

Charlie Lustman, owner of the Fairfax Avenue theater, announced the cancellation in the morning and said that he had received not only personal threats but also warnings that his theater would be destroyed if he showed the film.

The theater, Lustman said, had been flooded with phone calls and e-mails since a Los Angeles Times story on Saturday detailed his plans to screen the film, which has drawn explosive reactions ever since its 1915 release for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its depiction of blacks as buffoons and villains.

"I apologize to everyone on all sides -- to those moviegoers who wanted to see this in the right context and to those who were offended," Lustman said.

Although "The Birth of a Nation" is available on home video, it is rarely exhibited in public.

The cancellation marked the second time in four years that Lustman pulled the film because of pressure. He had scheduled a screening in August 2000 to coincide with the Democratic National Convention, but the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and others objected. Geraldine Washington, head of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, said at the time that the film had no positive value and could provoke hate crimes.

Last week, Lustman insisted that he was determined to show "The Birth of a Nation" even though he expected protests. It was to have launched a Monday series of rare and notable silent films. (The series will continue.) Saying he deplored the film's racism, he maintained that the film is a groundbreaking cinematic achievement that has value from artistic and historical perspectives.

A disclaimer by Lustman saying that he did not endorse the film's content but wanted to honor its place in cinematic history would have preceded the showing. "It's what I'm supposed to do," he said last week.

But even as his plans proceeded over the weekend, black leaders began to mobilize to protest the screening. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a community activist and head of the National Alliance for Positive Action, scheduled a citizens forum in Leimert Park on Monday, and several groups, including local branches of the NAACP, were planning to hold a news conference in front of the theater before the showing.

Hutchinson said in a statement: "This film has poisoned racial relations in America for nearly a century. We will inform all those that go to see this film of the racial damage it has wreaked."

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