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Fox 11 Archives: The First Controversial Movie

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One hundred years ago this week D.W. Griffith began filming The Clansman, which soon was re-titled, The Birth of a Nation.  The story is about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and on that latter subject offers a very sympathetic view.  Not surprising, perhaps, since Griffith and the author both were Southerners from a period when Reconstruction was viewed by many in the South as a Yankee plague. The picture had its world premiere in downtown Los Angeles, and almost from the start was the subject of criticism and boycotts by civil rights groups, led by the NAACP.  In reissuing the film, Griffith added title cards claiming artistic license, which critics saw as a way of defending the film’s base depiction of African-Americans. Even today, screenings of this picture draw protests, though modern critics have praised the film for its technical achievements.

Griffith’s film probably was the first feature to incite widespread protests, but the 100-year-old tradition of movies inciting ire is alive and well today. In the past several years, we’ve covered numerous film controversies that focus on another sensitive topic, religion. 

In 1988, Martin Scorsese produced The Last Temptation of Christ, a totally different take on the gospel narratives. It was a little too original for many Christian fundamentalists, and they let the filmmakers know it through demonstrations and boycotts. 

In 2004 Mel Gibson angered many in the Jewish community when he produced The Passion of the Christ, which included graphic scenes of Jesus’ torture.  In defending the movie, Gibson said, in essence, “Hey, I’m an artist and this reflects my artistic viewpoint, etc.”  He didn’t say “etc.”  When Gibson was promoting the film, a friend and I ran into him at a hotel.  My friend, who happens to be Jewish, said she heard the picture was anti-Semitic.  Gibson denied that it was.  “It better not be,” she said, “or my people will get you!” 

He looked stunned, gave us a double-take, and walked down the hall. My only reaction was that he wasn't as tall as I imagined he'd be.

In 2006, many Catholics voiced offense at The Da Vinci Code, the Tom Hanks movie based on the thriller by Dan Brown about a Holy Grail cover-up by the Church.  There were a lot of protests over this one.  Listen: you're messing with The Last Supper, buddy.

And Christians aren’t the only ones who are offended by the movies.  In 2012 a low-budget film – a trailer, really -- called The Innocence of Muslims was considered an insult to the religion by some Muslims, who turned out in big numbers – especially in the Middle East – to show how much they hated the film, although few, if any, had seen it. People were killed, injured and just plain riled-up over something that wasn’t even a proper film.

I’ve included a clip of The Birth of a Nation battle scene, which was filmed in the San Fernando Valley, not far from where Universal City is today.  Also, you can click on some of our coverage of protests over the other movies I’ve mentioned here. 

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