Daily Archives: January 6, 2003

D.W. Griffith in Black and White: Was the Birth of a Nation director really a racist? screams the title of the Slate cover article by one Bryan Curtis. And one doesn’t have to read any further to know what the answer is going to be.

“D.W. Griffith has been reduced by his critics to a “yes, but …” sentence. Was the native Kentuckian a great director? Yes, but some of his films, including his masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, were flatly racist. So there it is. Griffith made great political films that contain a sickening, backward politics. He is proof, writes biographer Richard Schickel, “that high artistic vision does not necessarily correlate with a similarly elevated social vision.””

Precisely. So what’s the problem?

“Griffith Masterworks, a superb new DVD collection from Kino containing four of the director’s features and more than 20 of his short films, puts Griffith’s grotesqueries in full view. There are his libidinous blacks—actually, white actors in blackface—lusting after virginal Southern daughters. There’s his archetypal “good Negro,” who exists only to please his white masters. And, in The Birth of a Nation, there’s the Ku Klux Klan, glorious in their white robes and hoods, routing their enemies to the strains of Richard Wagner.”

The same “strains” utilized by Francis Ford Coppola umpteen years later in Apocalypse Now

“But casting Griffith as a fire-breathing racist and pro-South pamphleteer perhaps gives him too much credit.”

Come again? The film was a literal recruiting poster for the Ku Klux Klan, which had fallen on hard times in the years just prior to the manufacture of Griffith’s “masterpiece.”

“Outside of a vague Southern populism, the director had no personal politics to speak of.”

And as Trent Lott has so recently demonstrated, there’s nothing “vague” about “Southern populism.”

It’s racist.

“The great dilemma about D.W. Griffith, in fact, is not that a racist could make a brilliant political film. It’s that a brilliant film about politics could be made by a man who didn’t have a coherent political idea in his head.”

Oh really? Few films are more politically coherent than A Corner in Wheat — or Intolerance for that matter. But I doubt Curtis is familiar with the former, and knows only certain shots from the latter.

“No celebration of Griffith’s many gifts can be extracted from his films’ awful treatment of race.”

Read that sentence again, closely. “Treatment of race” means “depiction of Afian-Americans” — and nothing more. For the responsibility of white America in all of this is not to be acknowledged.

“You can see this clearly in two of his Civil War-themed serial shorts, His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled, which Griffith released in 1910 and Kino has included in this collection. Wilfred Lucas, in blackface, plays George, a slave entrusted with the care of a white family when the patriarch goes off to war. The father dies in battle, and George heroically cares for the wife and daughter, even when it means his own bankruptcy. The film ends with the daughter entering a lucrative marriage, and George, old and destitute, basking in the glow of having done right by his dead white master. The shorts are so brilliantly made that you sit there, genuinely touched, until you consider the implications. “

“You” being, of course, white.

The Birth of a Nation, Griffith’s best movie, is even more troublesome.”

And the most troublesome thing about dealing with it is facing the fact that it’s not Griffth’s best movie.

“The first half is a slickly made drama about the Civil War. The second half focuses on the “horrors” of Reconstruction, with genteel plantation owners as the victims and ex-slaves and traitorous “scalawags” as the villains.”

But as anyone who has actually seen it knows, the first half is every bit as problemactic as the second — albeit in a less flashy way.

“In the middle of the second act is one of the most shocking sequences ever captured on film, as a virginal Southern daughter flees from an ex-slave bent on either marrying her or raping her. Rather than be despoiled, she jumps off a cliff. Her brother forms the Ku Klux Klan to avenge her death, on the hunch that the Klan’s white robes will recall in the black man his innate fear of ghosts.

But was Griffith really a die-hard racist?”

And once again the question is asked, only to beg the answer “no.”

“There’s no evidence from his biography that he cared very strongly about racial politics at all.”

Meaning what? What is your threshhold for racism Mr. Curtis? Do you have to have evidence that D.W. Griffith personally killed a “negro”?

“His father fought for the Confederacy and regaled the young Griffith with war stories, but, as Richard Schickel points out, “racism was no more a dominant factor in conditioning his sensibility than the hard times he and his family endured.””

An easy thing for a white man to say. VERY easy.

“The director never publicly lobbied for segregation or black disenfranchisement;”

He didn’t have to. He made The Birth of a Nation

“he defended the Klan only as a historical relic.”

Tell the families of the African-Americans who were lynched in the wake of the film’s release that the Klan was just a relic!

“Bret Wood, who produced much of the Griffith set for Kino, says the director chose stories not for their political content but for their potential to thrill audiences.”

Which is of course, entirely political !

In fact, just four years before Birth, he made a short called The Rose of Kentucky, in which evil Klansmen attack a white plantation owner who refuses to join their ranks. (Sadly, few quality prints exist, and it’s not included in the Kino collection.) The film seems to directly contradict the heroic images of the Klan he presented in Birth—and, if Griffith actually believed Birth’s ethos, his very political sensibility. But it made for a great story, so he made it anyway.

The operative word is “seems.”

“Watching the Kino discs, you get the sense that Griffith was less a racist than a careless thinker who fell hard for others’ ideas.”

Like Leni Riefenstahl.

Or Trent Lott.

“The Clansman, upon which Griffith based much of The Birth of a Nation,”

ALL of it, according to Griffth historian Seymour Stern. But never mind. This is “Slate” after all, where Ronald Reagan rules and facts are (as Ronnie declared) “stupid things.”

“is an anti-black screed disguised as a historical novel. Ex-Confederate soldiers offered the director advice. According to one of the Kino documentaries, some of the most offensive images in Birth—like the ludicrous blacks in South Carolina’s Reconstruction Congress—were cut-and-pasted straight from racist political cartoons of the period. And yet Griffith thought his copious research and reliance on historical documents was turning the film toward a definitive historical account—and away from the one-sided versions of Reconstruction that had been penned by Northern historians.”

Yes there’s “another side” to slavery. The bright happy side that Disney got around to in Song of the South. A shame it’s not more widely available.

“Shocked at the uproar that Birth caused among liberal intellectuals and the NAACP,”

An organization that came into being because of The Birth of a Nation

“Griffith did something no unreconstructed bigot would do. He made Broken Blossoms (1919), about a tender romance between a white woman and a Chinese man. (Though here Griffith indulged in some well-trod stereotypes, too; his heroic “Yellow Man” is a shopkeeper, opium-smoker, etc.)”

In other words he made another racist film — albeit far more low-key. And the reason he could was his underscoring of the fact that “Chinky” (as Lillian Gish called him) was not only portrayed by the white Richard Barthelmess, but it was emphasized throughout that his love for the white heroine was utterly sexless and “pure.”

“Gone was the paranoia of Birth—with its scheming mulattoes and rants against interracial marriage. In was a new kind of racial sensibility—not up to par with modern standards but different than anything he had shown before.”

Not at all. It was merely condescending rather than murderous.

“What all this suggests is that Griffith had no well-formed inner politics and that whatever ideology he put on the screen was malleable to the social whim of the moment (or whatever books he was reading).”

The mind boggles at what he might have done with “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

“If this idea seems strange, it’s because the American directors making political films these days—Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Tim Robbins, Warren Beatty—have fairly obvious political agendas of their own.

And thus Right and Left are rendered equivalent by reactionary operatives.

“To praise or criticize the ideas in their films is to praise or criticize their own ideas. That won’t work with Griffith. He was a sophisticated filmmaker, but he wasn’t a sophisticated thinker.”

But D.W. Griffith was a very sophisticated thinker. And the proof of his sophistication is the film he actually made in response to the uproar caused by The Birth of a Nation.

It was called Intolerance. And it told four different stories at once — cutting freely between historical periods — all designed to illustrate the multifarious forms of human intolerance.

Except, of course, for racial intolerance

Griffith was no fool.

The editors of “Slate,” however, think that we are.