Will racially charged movies always raise the potential for theater violence? That’s what Columbia executives must be wondering after several disturbances marred the opening of John Singleton’s Higher Learning, a cautionary tale about multicultural tensions on a college campus.
Since its premiere, Learning has earned a robust $24.9 million — and tallied these unhealthy stats on police blotters: 2 deaths, 1 shooting injury, and 14 arrests. Executives at Columbia were quick to disassociate the film from the homicides — and rightly so. The shooting in Joliet, Ill., happened when a woman’s gun accidentally discharged during a showing of the film. And of the two deaths, which occurred outside separate theaters in Washington, D.C., one was a drive-by shooting and the other was the result of an argument between two people in line. But confrontations between black and white teens in Ohio and arrests in Michigan did seem indirectly related to the film.
Columbia, which was taken to task in 1991 for its poor handling of violent outbreaks surrounding Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, was clearly concerned about the potential for violence. The studio took action before Learning’s release by offering to reimburse theaters for additional security, and, on the advice of several exhibitors, opened the film on a Wednesday, rather than a Friday. ”We were proactive rather than reactive,” says Columbia spokesman Ed Russell. ”We planned steps that had proven helpful.”
Learning was also carefully marketed. Print ads omitted any depiction of violence, and the armed confrontation at the end of the film was downplayed in trailers and ads. ”We played up the elements of human drama,” says a studio marketing executive. ”This was not a call to arms.”
Similar strategies had averted problems on Singleton’s Poetic Justice and even more incendiary films, like Basic Instinct. ”We were sorry about any of the violence,” says a Columbia exec, ”(but) I’m sure there are fights and arrests on the opening weekends of many popular films.”