A So-Called “Agent of Chaos”: James Eagan Holmes, Theater Violence, and the Myth of White Exceptionalism
Caetlin Benson-Allott / Georgetown University

Dark Knight Rises poster

Poster for The Dark Knight Rises (2016)

Shortly after 12:00AM on Friday, July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes killed twelve people and wounded dozens more during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan) at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado. Holmes had purchased a ticket in advance of the midnight premier—ostensibly one of the most anticipated “movie events” of the year—and watched its beginning along with roughly four hundred other patrons before leaving the theater through an emergency exit, changing into defensive apparel, and returning with gas canisters and guns. He opened fire, and patrons began calling 911 immediately. By 12:45AM Holmes was under arrest, and journalists had begun investigating “the Aurora massacre,” as many media outlets would call it.

The Dark Knight Rises murders were tragic, as every murder is tragic, but sadly they are not exceptional within the US’s long histories of mass shootings and theater shootings. Exceptionalism nevertheless undergirded media reactions to the event, revealing the foundational role that white privilege plays in American beliefs about cinema violence. Commentators were appalled that Holmes would bring violence to a movie theater—and specifically to “a cheerful suburban screening.” [ (( Jack Healey , “Colorado Shooting Trial Pits a Calculated Killer Against an Erratic Mind,” New York Times, April 28, 2015. ))] The Century 16 multiplex was perceived as safe and family-friendly. It also served a predominantly white clientele, which made the violence that occurred there seem more shocking, more random than prior incidents at theaters serving urban and minority communities.

Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado

The Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, circa 2012

White privilege is everywhere and nowhere in media coverage of the Aurora massacre, as it is everywhere and nowhere in the films associated with the massacre. Victims said that Holmes identified himself as the Joker—the sadistic, anarchist villain of Nolan’s previous Batman movie, The Dark Knight (2008)—before opening fire on July 20. [ (( Jordan Zakarin, “James Holmes, Colorado Dark Knight Rises Shooter, Reportedly Called Himself The Joker,” The Hollywood Reporter, July 20, 2012. ; Ginger Adams Otis, Dark Knight Madness at Colo. Moviehouse,” New York Daily News December 30, 2012.” ))] Commentators saw the Joker reflected in Holmes’s mug shot, where he stares at the camera wide-eyed from underneath a mop of dyed red hair. In fact Holmes looked nothing like the Joker, who has green hair in Nolan’s film, but that really does not matter. Whether James Eagan Holmes styled his criminal activity around the Joker or not, the Joker shaped its reception. Like the Joker, Holmes was read as exceptional and his crimes as incomprehensible because of his race, his whiteness. Rather than associate his crimes with prior theater violence and the men of color who’d been vilified en masse in association, the media focused on mental illness as the only discourse adequate to an allegedly unprecedented rampage.

Only two reporters—ABC News’s Sydney Lupkin and The Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Block—analyzed Holmes’s massacre as part of a history of theater violence, [ (( The Hollywood Reporter’s Pamela McClintock alluded—twice, in fact—to a prior theater shooting at The Matrix (dirs. Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999), but in fact no such incident ever occurred. Sydney Lupkin, “Colorardo Shooting Recalls History of Theater Violence,” ABC News, July 20, 2012.; Alex Ben Block, “A History of Violence in Movie Theaters,” The Hollywood Reporter, July 25, 2012.; Pamela McClintock, Dark Knight Rises Opens to Record $30.6 Mil in Midnight Grosses Amid Shooting,” The Hollywood Reporter, July 20, 2012.; Pamela McClintock, Dark Knight Shooting: Theaters to Check Bags, Ban Certain Items,” The Hollywood Reporter, July 20, 2012. ))] and few read Holmes’s crime within the history of mass shootings in the US. Instead, journalists focused their investigations on Holmes’s poor mental health. Reporters rushed to reveal that Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado before he withdrew from its doctoral program in neuroscience earlier that summer. Court psychiatrists eventually diagnosed the young man as schizophrenic, but in the meantime the media made much of his interest in “dysphoric mania,” suggesting that it might have been a self-diagnosis, and of prosecutors’ and former defenders’ references to him as an “animal“ and “a whole lot of crazy.” [ (( Jack Healey, “Colorado Shooting Trail Pits a Calculated Killer Against An Erratic Mind,” New York Times, April 28, 2015.; Jack Healy and Julie Turkewitz, “Verdict Is Guilty in Aurora Attack,” New York Times, July 17, 2015; Erica Goode, Serge F. Kovaleski, Jack Healy, and Dan Frosch, “Before Gunfire, Hints of ‘Bad News,’” New York Times, August 26, 2012. ))] This focus accurately reflected the legal issues Holmes faced at trial, but it also limited the discourses for understanding his crimes. Without historical context, what reaction could one have besides shock?

Heath Ledger as the Joker

Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008)

Shock no doubt contributed to media comparisons between Holmes and the Joker and hyperbolic characterizations of Holmes as “evil.” [ (( See, for instance, Stephanie Marche, “Don’t Blame the Movie, but Don’t Ignore It Either,” New York Times, July 27, 2012. ))] Such associations implicitly attribute to Holmes the Joker’s nihilist penchant for chaos. In The Dark Knight, the Joker (Heath Ledger) repudiates the logic of psychological motivation so prevalent in Hollywood storytelling and US pop psychology. He offers multiple, contradictory explanations for his disfiguring facial scars, upsetting the very notion of an origin story. He compares himself to “a dog chasing cars… a wrench in the gears” to explain that he creates mayhem for its own sake. Such contrariness is threatening to “schemers” and others invested in the social order, but—notably—no one in The Dark Knight ever calls the Joker evil. Instead they stoutly insist on his exceptionally immoral anarchism: “some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Holmes has been called evil, however, because his attack was methodically planned and—I argue—because of who it killed, namely white women, white children, and the white unborn. [ (( Ashley Moser miscarried shortly after Holmes shot her and her daughter at the Century 16 cinema. CNN Wire Staff, “Colorado Shooting Victim Suffers Miscarriage During Recovery,” CNN, July 29, 2012. ))] As in Nolan’s films, the depravity of a killer seems to be determined by whom he chooses to kill. In the Joker’s own words, “No one panics when the expected people get killed. … If I tell the press that tomorrow a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics.” Following this logic, Nolan uses images of terrorized white children to convey the immorality of the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, in Batman Begins), the Joker, and Talia al Ghul and Bane (Marion Cotillard and Tom Hardy, in The Dark Knight Rises). Importantly, all of these killers are also white. Nolan’s films have been identified as bastions of whiteness, in their casting and in their commitment to law and order at any price. [ (( “See Martin Fradley, “What Do You Believe In? Film Scholarship and the Cultural Politics of the Dark Knight Franchise,” Film Quarterly 66:3 (Spring 2013): 15-27.” ))] The Joker in his white clown makeup is both the scourge and the apotheosis of this whiteness; more than any other Nolan villain, he represents the horror of whiteness turning on itself. Holmes’s whiteness and the whiteness of his victims similarly challenged white Americans’ belief that they should be exempt from cinema violence. For as long as possible, the US media maintained the fiction that cinema violence was gang violence, that theater shooters were always and only African-American. That was never true, and the exceptional attention paid to Holmes’s victims and other white victims of white cinema shooters reveals the prevalence of the myth.

Jack Gleeson in Batman Begins

Nathan Gamble in The Dark Knight

Extras in The Dark Knight Rises

The terrorized moppets of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy: Jack Gleeson in Batman Begins (2005), Nathan Gamble in The Dark Knight (2008), and a busload of unidentified extras in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Aurora was the biggest theater shooting to date—in terms of both the number of victims and in terms of the size of the panic it generated—but it was not the last. On January 13, 2014, Curtis Reeves (white) shot and killed Chad Oulson at a Tampa, Florida screening of Lone Survivor. [ (( Frances Robles, “A Movie Date, a Text Message, and a Fatal Shot,” New York Times, January 21, 2014. ))] On July 23, 2015, John Russell Houser (white) shot and killed Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson at a Lafayette, Louisiana screening of Trainwreck. [ (( Campbell Roberson, Richard Pérez-Peña, and Alan Blinder, “Lafayette Shooting Adds Another Angry Face in Gunman’s Gallery,” New York Times, July 24, 2015. ))] On January 21, 2016, Dane Gallion (also white) shot Michelle Mallari at a Renton, Washington screening of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Gallion brought a gun to the theater for protection in the event of a mass shooting, but it went off accidently after he, intoxicated, tried to load it in the theater. [ (( Ángel González, “Man Who Says He Fear Mass Shootings Accidentally Shoots Stranger in Movie Theater, Police Say,” Seattle Times, January 23, 2016.; Hana Kim, “Woman Shot Inside Renton Theater Blames Regal Cinemas,” Q13 Fox, January 29, 2016. ))] None of these incidents generated the same obsessive coverage as the Aurora massacre, but one day another shooting will. Theater violence isn’t common, but it also isn’t going away. Neither are moral panics—and they aren’t about to start historicizing themselves for us either. We need to do that work—to ask who is inviting our fear, why, and what came before.

Image Credits:

1. Poster for The Dark Knight Rises (2016)
2. The Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, circa 2012
3. Heath Ledger at the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008)
4. Jack Gleeson in Batman Begins (2005) (author’s screen grab)
5. Nathan Gamble in The Dark Knight (2008) (author’s screen grab)
6. A busload of unidentified extras in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) (author’s screen grab)

Links to the author’s previous columns:

“Warriors, Come Out to Play”: Considering the Role of Films in Moral Panics about Cinema Violence

“I Just Expect There To Be Some Trouble”: Boyz N the Hood and Racialization of Cinema Violence

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“I Just Expect There To Be Some Trouble”: Boyz N the Hood and Racialization of Cinema Violence
Caetlin Benson-Allott / Georgetown University

Poster for Boyz N The Hood

Original poster for Boyz N The Hood (John Singleton, 1991).

Although there was relatively little cinema violence during the 1980s, the decade nevertheless changed popular perception of such incidents. Between 1979 and 1988, the US media largely forgot their fear of cinema shootings, or rather it was eclipsed by a larger moral panic over gang violence. Gang activity did increase in the US during this period, but media coverage exaggerated and sensationalized the problem, vilifying all African-American youth by association. As a result, reporters and even some reviewers began predicting cinema violence at films by and about African-American men. The 1979 incidents at screenings of The Warriors had been treated as horrific yet isolated episodes — isolated by their association with one inflammatory film. But between 1988 and 1991, a series of films were accused of soliciting violence by soliciting Black viewers. An entire audience group was both courted and criminalized in advance, so that when violent incidents did occur, they provided confirmation bias for further prejudice and disenfranchisement.

Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988) was the first film to inspire sustained press coverage about the threat of theater violence. Its depiction of gang life in Los Angeles so alarmed the LAPD that they demanded a private screening approximately one month before the film’s release to determine its potential impact. Afterwards, LA Country Sheriff Sargent Wes McBride predicted that the movie would “leave dead bodies from one end of this town to the other… I wouldn’t be the least surprised if a shooting erupted in a movie theater.” [ (( “Deborah Caulfield, “Colors Director Hopper Defends His Movie on LA Gangs,” Los Angeles Times March 25, 1988, Y18; “Gang Movie Colors Will Trigger Violence,” A1.” ))] Colors opened without incident, but unfortunately, ten days later, David Dawson was fatally shot while standing in line for the film outside a theater in Stockton, California. Dawson was a member of the Crips, and his attacker, Charles Van Queen, was a member of the Bloods, a connection that was overplayed in the press to suggest that gang movies weren’t safe.

Scene from Colors

Danny (Sean Penn) evaluates suspected gang members in Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988).

Not just gang movies, though — even serious dramas about racism and African-American disenfranchisement were critiqued for courting violence. Hence Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) was excoriated in New York Magazine for potentially inciting riots before it even premiered. Reviewer David Denby predicted that Lee’s film would “create an uproar” and warned that “if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible,” while columnist Joe Klein expressed hope that the film would open “in not too many theaters near you” because “black audiences” could “react violently” to its depiction of “a summer race riot.” [ (( “David Denby, “He’s Gotta Have It,” review of Do the Right Thing (Universal film), New York Magazine, June 26, 1989, 53, 54; emphasis mine; Joe Klein, “The City Politic: Spiked?” New York Magazine, June 26, 1989, 14.” ))] Jack Kroll of Newsweek also called the movie “dynamite under every seat.” [ (( “Jack Kroll, “How Hot Is Too Hot; The Fuse Has Been Lit,” review of Do the Right Thing (Universal film), Newsweek, July 3, 1989, 64.” ))] Needless to say, none of them apologized after Do the Right Thing ran without incident. Lee’s movie grossed over $27.5 million on a $6.5 million budget, sufficient success to warrant a cycle of similar films, albeit ones about black-on-black rather than interracial violence. The films of the “ghetto action cycle”—as Amanda Ann Klein and S. Craig Watkins call it [ (( “S. Craig Watkins, “Ghetto Reelness: Hollywood Film Production, Black Popular Culture, and the Ghetto Action Film Cycle,” in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 236-250, quoted in Amanda Ann Klein, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 139.” ))] —continue Lee’s politicized violation of “a once-sacrosanct taboo against the portrayal of ‘negative’ images” of African-Americans by African-Americans. [ (( “Salim Muwakkil, “Spike Lee and the Image Police,” Cineaste 14, no. 4 (1990): 35.” ))] These movies were likewise blamed for inciting violence despite their anti-violence messages of personal responsibility, messages that, ironically, downplay the larger social forces undergirding racist and gang violence in this country.

Poster for Do The Right Thing

Poster for New Jack City

Original advertisements for Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) and New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991).

The first film of the cycle, New Jack City, premiered on March 8, 1991 — four days after news media unveiled video of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers. [ (( “Laura Baker, 7” ))] Yet journalists failed to make that connection when reporting on a riot outside one of the film’s screenings. At the Mann Theater in Los Angeles’s Westwood neighborhood, ticket-holders became upset when denied seats to an oversold show. LAPD were called in, and King’s name became the rallying cry in a protest against institutionalized racism. Reporters only associated the Westwood riot with New Jack City, however, and with the death of Gabriel Williams at another Brooklyn screening. The New York Times translated these and other incidents into a fear-mongering think-piece about how a “Film on Gangs Becomes Part of the World it Portrays.” [ (( “Seth Mydans, “Film on Gangs Becomes Part of the World It Portrays,” New York Times, March 13, 1991, A16. ” ))] The paper later granted producers Doug McHenry and George Jackson an op-ed to argue that “New Jack City doesn’t cause riots,” but the panic had been reborn. [ (( “Doug McHenry and George Jackson, “Missing the Big Picture,” New York Times March 26, 1991, A23.” ))] After New Jack City, the press associated ghetto action films with cinema violence; as Singleton put it, they were “lying in wait” when Boyz N the Hood came out on July 12th of that year. [ (( “Robert Reinhold, “Near Gang Turf, Theater Features Peace,” New York Times, July 15, 1991, A13.” ))]

Although Boyz N the Hood premiered at the Cannes Film Festival — where it received a glowing review from Roger Ebert — its US debut was marred by biased and inflammatory stories of cinema violence. During the film’s opening weekend, twenty of the 829 theaters where it played experienced some fighting or disorder. Shots were fired at cinemas in eight cities, and two people died: Michael Booth, at the Halstead Outdoor Drive-In in Riverdale, Illinois, and Jitu Jones, shot outside a downtown Minneapolis theater. [ (( “John Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” Washington Post, July 14, 1991, A1; “Minneapolis Youth Second Victim of Violence at Film Showing,” New York Times, July 19, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/19/us/minneapolis-youth-2d-victim-of-violence-at-film-showing.html. ” ))] Riots and “melees” were also reported in Orlando and Tukwila, Washington. [ (( “Mike Williams, “Boyz N the Hood Violence Subsides,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 15, 1991, A3.” ))] The LAPD set up defensive barricades in Westwood, fearing a riot similar to the one that accompanied New Jack City (and evidently in denial about the latter’s correlation with the King video). Newspapers sensationalized all of these events; headlines like “Trail of Trouble for Boyz” and “ Film Opens with Wave of Violence” accompanied stories that belied the film’s commercial and critical success. [ (( ““Trail of Trouble for Boyz,” Hollywood Reporter, July 15, 1991, 6; Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” A1.” ))] In one, an Atlanta exhibitor scoffs, “Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t banned the movie,” while another quotes an anonymous Columbia executive lamenting, “Who will show these movies anymore?” [ (( “Norma Wagner, “Atlanta-Area Theaters Beef Up Security for Boyz’ Showings,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 14, 1991, A6; John Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” A1.” ))] Even after the violence ended, newspapers continued to quote sources condemning Singleton’s movie as “just an excuse for getting rowdy.” [ (( “Williams, “Boyz N the Hood Violence Subsides,” A3.” ))] Like McHenry and Jackson, Singleton was called upon to publicly defend his film; he reminded reporters that cinema violence does not justify censoring filmmakers but is rather an “indication of the degradation of American society…a society that breeds illiteracy, economic depravation, and doesn’t educate its kids, and then puts them in jail.” [ (( “Andrea King, “Columbia Backing Up Its Boyz,” Hollywood Reporter, July 15, 1991, 6. ” ))]

Singleton rightly blamed the incidents at Boyz N the Hood — and Colors and New Jack City by extension — on the systematic dispossession of African-Americans, but this salient and important critique differs strikingly from the message of his film. Boyz N the Hood, like other films of the ghetto action cycle, stresses the individual’s personal responsibility to rise above unjust conditions. Its protagonist, Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), avoids the pitfalls of early parenthood and drugs, which entrap his friends, because he has a strong father figure, Jason “Furious” Styles (Lawrence Fishburne), who counsels him on anticipating the consequences of his actions.

Furious and Tre in Boyz N The Hood

Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) advises his son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991).

Furious also soliloquizes on how the impoverishment of black communities benefits white communities, but the film places its allegiances with Tre — who rises above — rather than with Ricky (Morris Chestnut) or Doughboy (Ice Cube), who cannot. As others have noted, personal responsibility is a politically conservative philosophy with high crossover potential for white audiences. [ (( “Kenneth Chan, “The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties,” Cinema Journal 37, no. 2 (1998): 35-48.” ))] It is to Singleton’s credit that he did not continue this reasoning in press conferences or interviews. But the contradiction does matter, in no small part because some people used the content of films like New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood to interpret the violence that accompanied their premiers. “Personal responsibility” places blame with the shooter, the filmmaker, and sometimes the victim, but it does not ask viewers to question how mass disenfranchisement also breeds violence. It helps decontextualize cinema violence by aligning those involved with the pathologized or irredeemable characters who cannot or will not escape violence in the films. To be sure, most journalists and other pundits report on cinema violence before they’ve seen the films, but as the films’ anti-violence messages are subsequently marshaled for their defense, they point towards the “personal responsibility” of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, the social origins of cinema violence would not be considered by the mainstream press until the twenty-first century, when lack of adequate mental health care became one way of explaining why whites were killing other whites at the movies.

Image Credits:

1. Original poster for Boyz N The Hood
2. Danny (Sean Penn) Evaluates Suspected Gang Members in Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988) (author’s screen grab)
3. Original Advertisement for Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
4. Original Advertisement for New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991)
5. Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) Advises His Son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991) (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

“Warriors, Come Out to Play”: Considering the Role of Films in Moral Panics about Cinema Violence
Caetlin Benson-Allott / Georgetown University


Movie theaters are supposed to be melting pots where individuals come together to form an audience, but often they are also sites of conflict, sometimes deadly conflict. On occasion, these incidents capture national and even international attention. In the US, they have inspired public outcry about street gangs and mental illness, depending—I will argue—on the races of the individuals involved.

The first US panic over cinema violence began in February 1979 when several young men died at or shortly after screenings of Walter Hill’s surreal urban epic, The Warriors. Their deaths led reviewers, pundits, politicians, parents, and even one pediatrician to call for the film’s censure. They blamed The Warriors for attracting gangs—specifically gangs of African-American young men—to the cinema, a rhetorical trope that would shape anticipation of and reporting on cinema violence for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s concerns about gang violence reached such a pitch that writers condemned John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) for inspiring cinema shootings before it even premiered. Race and cinema violence were inextricable in popular discourse, at least until this past decade, when a series of theater shootings by white men ought to have made whiteness the race under discussion.

No mainstream media cited race as a contributing factor when James Egan Holmes killed twelve people and injured seventy more at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in July 2012, nor did commentators condemn the film for inciting violence. The Warriors and Boyz N the Hood did not bring guns to theaters any more than The Dark Knight Rises did, but because they told stories about and attractive to young men of color, the films were blamed for the violence that accompanied them. In fact, the earlier movies question the social conditions that generate violence—far more so than The Dark Knight Rises—yet no one asked how institutional racism contributed to the incidents or public reactions to them. Such generosity has been reserved for non-black killers whose crimes are blamed on insufficient support for the mentally ill. [ (( “I say non-black because not all of the cinema shooters whose crimes were attributed to mental illness were white; in fact, the discourse began after Mujtaba Rabbani Jabbar shot Paul Schrum in a Baltimore-area screening of Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand in June 2006. Jabbar was suffering from schizophrenia at the time he shot Schrum, which is tragic. But the media never considered mitigating circumstances when blaming black men for previous incidents of cinema violence, unless you count blaming a movie for attracting black audiences.” Jennifer McMenamin, “25-year-old Man Guilty of Theater Shooting,” Baltimore Sun, December 19, 2006. ))] Thus it is the project of this column to ask how the presence of mortal violence in movie theaters inspires different kinds of fear depending on the presumed race of the perpetrators and victims.

Poster for

Original Advertisement for The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

When The Warriors premiered on February 9, 1979, no one took it very seriously. The first in a cycle of urban gang films, its cast was virtually unknown, although its director, Walter Hill, had recently made a name for himself with Hard Times (1975), a stylish Depression-era boxing movie starring Charles Bronson. Paramount opened the movie wide with an incendiary newspaper and television ad campaign hailing “the armies of the night,” but early reviewers were unimpressed. Some offered modest praise of Hill’s mannerist approach to the material: a Coney Island gang travels to a citywide summit in Bronx, is falsely accused of assassinating the meeting’s messianic leader, Cyrus (Roger Hill), and must fight their way home past a phantasmagoric assortment of rival gangs bent on revenge. The Warriors was popular at the box office, however. In two weeks, Hill’s movie had made over six million dollars. In three weeks, it was the highest grossing film in theaters and stood at the center of a nationwide controversy.

Original Television Spot for The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

Word was spreading that The Warriors did not just depict gang violence but provoked it. On Monday, February 12, Marvin Kenneth Eller was shot in the head—ostensibly by members of a local African-American gang—while seeing The Warriors at a drive-in theater in Palm Springs, California. [ (( ” “The Flick of Violence: A Gang Film called The Warriors Attracts Off-Screen Rumbles,” Time. March 19, 1979, 39.” )) ] That same night, Timothy Gitchel was fatally stabbed by a group of black teenagers outside a screening of The Warriors in Oxnard, California. Three nights later, Martin Yakubowicz was stabbed outside a Boston subway station by another teenager who had just seen the movie and paraphrased a key line of dialogue while attacking Yakubowicz. Initial reports identified Yakubowicz’s assailant as a member of a rival gang, although that story was later abandoned (and notably not retracted or corrected). During this period, gangs of young men were reported marauding the New York City subway system, and a Boston hitchhiker was attacked and nearly killed by three men who called themselves the Warriors. On March 23, a fourth young man was stabbed at a San Juan Capistrano drive-in, also while watching The Warriors. News of “Murder in the Cinema” spread to across the globe; Massachusetts state senator Michael LoPresti asked that the film be banned in Boston, a demand that Boston Globe film reviewer Bruce McCabe hastily endorsed. [ (( “William Scobie, “Murder in the Cinema,” The Observer, March 4, 1979, 12; Bruce McCabe, “Hollywood Faces Reality Sometimes,” Boston Globe, March 11, 1979, A12.” )) ] Protestors picketed screenings of The Warriors in New York and Los Angeles, alleging that it glorified gang violence. Newspaper columnists claimed that the movie was irresponsible and irredeemable, nothing more than “one long tracking shot of the gangs battling—with knives, guns, bicycle chains, clubs, switchblades, Molotov cocktails, and baseball bats.” [ (( ” “The Warriors Stirs Up Violent Storm,” The Globe and Mail, January 12, 1979, n.pag.; Louise Sweeney, “Does Violence on the Screen Mean Violence on the Street?” Christian Science Monitor April 3, 1979; B26.” )) ]

Warriors line up

The Warriors Consider Their Options in The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

That sounds like a great movie, but it isn’t The Warriors. The Warriors contains almost no on-screen bloodshed. Instead it takes the lives and concerns of its characters seriously, including their frustration with the American Dream. “This is what we fought all night to get back to?” lead Warrior Swan (Michael Beck) asks when his group finally reaches Coney Island. The so-called “People’s Playground” is nearly derelict. Its has no future to offer its youth, only a horizon of crushed hopes. In this manner, Hill’s movie resolutely refuses to either celebrate or condemn street gangs and their members. Yet just as the Warriors were falsely accused of killing Cyrus, The Warriors was unfairly blamed for the murders of Marvin Kenneth Eller, Timothy Gitchel, and Martin Yakubowicz. Report after report blamed the movie for sparking black-on-white violence even though the Warriors are a multiracial gang and the film associates its only all-black gang with discipline and justice. One Los Angeles anti-gang activist called The Warriors “a mind control picture,” suggesting that it induced violent uprising among young viewers, but most commentators indicted the audience directly. [ (( ” “Gang Film Draws Community Protest,” The Los Angeles Sentinel, February 22, 1979, A2.” )) ] As an anonymous Paramount executive put it, “If you bring that sort of crowd into the moviehouse, you will have the same trouble with The Sound of Music.” [ (( ” “The Flick of Violence” Time. March 19, 1979. ” ))]

Swan and Mercy

Swan (Michael Beck) and Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenberg) Come Home to Coney (The Warriors, Walter Hill, 1979)

Such an apology absolves the film but only by suggesting that “that sort of crowd” does not belong in movie theaters in the first place. In the context of the article and the era, “that sort” clearly refers to “gang members,” which clearly refers to African-American young men. Racism was hidden in euphemism during The Warriors scandal, but only barely. At root, the moral panic over The Warriors was driven by a fear that the wrong kind of people would take the wrong messages away from this film. That fear rests on a supposition that only some kinds of people should be going to the cinema in the first place.

Whether the concerned citizens of 1979 saw The Warriors or not, they were certainly frightened by its message: the have-nots outnumber the haves, and they have nothing to lose. The combination of social realist themes with surreal violence confused critics, which contributed to the media’s transformation of a few isolated incidents of cinema violence into a nationwide moral panic. That panic established the rhetoric with which others would predict and denounce gang violence at anti-gang movies, most notably John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991). My subsequent columns will examine the controversy surrounding Boyz N the Hood and the international shock that followed Holmes’s massacre at The Dark Knight Rises. Race played a determining role in how the media portrayed both events, in how cinema violence was transformed from a social menace to a social tragedy.

Image Credits:

1. The Warriors
2. Original poster for The Warriors
2. Warriors line up (author’s screen grab)
3. Swan and Mercy (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.