D.W. Griffith (Film Director)
D.W. Griffith was a prolific director in the silent era of the filmmaking industry. He has also stirred up controversy and acclaim for his heated and incredibly racist film “The Birth of a Nation”, where Griffith depicts the birth of the white supremacist-run group the Ku Klux Klan and his disdain for African-Americans, portraying them as animal-like to that of their caucasian counterparts. He has also directed “Broken Blossoms” depicting racist stereotypes of Asians and the previous two films are the landmark themes of racial tension during the early 1900s.
The topic of racial tension is very important with respect to this director because regardless of what other people think of it or what you think about D.W. Griffith, it is still apart of American Film History and he still remains relevant, to this very day. All of this, of course, was before the definition of PC, or politically correct, culture came to be and African-Americans and other minorities in the United States of America did not have much of a platform to get their voices heard. According to PBS, “The film, however beautiful, was a sad testament to the deep prejudice of the times and black audiences were outraged by the racist distortion of history. Viewed as a contributor to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the film caused riots in a number of black communities” (PBS). The film began the resurgence of the Klan and black people were already being lynched and discriminated against, despite slavery ending over fifty years ago at the time of the release date of this film. It’s controversy even got the attention of then-president Woodrow Wilson, who described the film as “Writing history with lightning”.
Also, to be clear, Griffith’s film is not directly from him or his imagination. He adapted the film from the book The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. who, according to Alexis Clark of History.com, “Was a classmate and friend of President Woodrow Wilson, The Birth of a Nation portrayed Reconstruction as catastrophic. It showed Radical Republicans encouraging equality for blacks, who in the film are represented as uncouth, intellectually inferior and predators of white women. And this racist narrative was widely accepted as historical fact. William Joseph Simmons is considered to be the founder of the 1915 modern Ku Klux Klan. While recovering from a car accident, the local preacher in Georgia followed the Birth of a Nation’s nationwide success. There were KKK-inspired aprons, costumes and regalia that glorified the defunct organization. Simmons seized on the film’s popularity to bolster the Klan’s appeal again. It wasn’t just the fraught racial tensions that made the timing of a rebirth feasible. The way the film was made, with innovating editing techniques and close-up action shots, was captivating” (Clark). While Griffith’s methods and poor judge of black character was largely mixed, many critics came to praise his ability behind the camera, and earning President Woodrow Wilson’s stamp of approval was just the icing on the cake that the motion picture needed.
The article continues to say, “Simmons put a plan in motion once he learned the film would be released on December 6, 1915 in Atlanta. Just 10 days before the film premiered, Simmons gathered a group and climbed Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, to burn a large cross. He reportedly said, ‘There was good reason, as I have said, for making Thanksgiving Day (November 25, 1915) the occasion for burning the fiery cross. Something was going to happen in town (Atlanta) the next week (the premiere of The Birth of a Nation) that would give the new order a tremendous popular boost.’ As planned, word spread about the burning cross. Simmons also took out a newspaper ad about the KKK‘s revival that ran right alongside an announcement about The Birth of a Nation premiere. On opening night, Simmons and fellow Klansmen dressed in white sheets and Confederate uniforms paraded down Peachtree Street with hooded horses, firing rifle salutes in front of the theater. The effect was powerful and screenings in more cities echoed the display, including movie ushers donning white sheets. Klansmen also handed out KKK literature before and after screenings” (Clark).
Of course, all of this just enticed the opening of the movie and gave Griffith more room to freely promote the film and have it ultimately be drawn to a positive, if still controversial, reception and naturally, white supremacists were jovial to see a film like this get adapted for the silver screen. So they were going to do whatever they could to advertise for this movie because it aligned with their beliefs of a white nationalistic society, which includes the degredation and humiliation of African-Americans and other minorities at the time.
The article also says, “The NAACP unsuccessfully protested The Birth of a Nation but the film’s popularity was too strong. With black troops from WWI returning from France and the migration of black people to the North, there were new racial tensions in northern cities like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia. As the film continued to be screened and re-screened well into the 1920s, Dick Lehr, author of The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War, says that more Klan chapters formed and membership reportedly reached into the millions. New Klansmen were shown The Birth of Nation and the film continued to be a recruiting tool for decades to come” (Clark).
While, naturally, the NAACP were against this movie being released and they had every right to protest it, their opinions were very much overlooked and failed to resonate any change within the heart of Hollywood and its subsequent film industry. This gave African-Americans and other minorities more reason to fear as this movie was eliciting and inciting violence in the country with its hateful rhetoric, which eventually lead to more hate speech and assaults against minorities.
“Broken Blossoms” is another one of Griffith’s movies from 1919 that tells the audience a different story. We are introduced to a young girl named Lucy who is forced to find refuge in an Asian man’s, Cheng Huang, shop after being abused frequently by her father. Addressing Andrew Emerson of The Film Watcher, “The really egregious character is Cheng Huan, a ‘Yellow Man’ whose overdone squinty-eye and hunched-back mannerisms make it all too obvious that the guy playing him is a white man. A ‘devoted Buddhist’ in the most stereotypical sense of the phrase, he moves to London in order to spread ‘the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons’” (Emerson). Around this time, many minority roles were being played by white actors and those that actually had minority roles in films, they were often depicted as less intelligent or inferior to those of their white actors. You can see in the Cheng Huan who is seen as a stereotypical asian man in his appearance and like many of the African-American’s in The Birth of a Nation, the minority characters are played by white people, either with exaggerated facial appearances or painted up in black face.
Emerson continues to explain to his readers, “a rather exceptional premise that not only results in cringeworthy scenes where he openly quotes Buddha’s teachings in the street but, when placed alongside the fact that he smokes opium in his free time and meekly wishes ‘good luck’ to a missionary going to China, he also serves as a convenient way of glossing over (and even indirectly sugarcoating) the West’s far more extensive, arrogant, and out-of-touch missionary/imperialist endeavors in the Far East. By the time you reach the scene in which Lucy openly calls Cheng a “Chinky” without any reaction from him” (Emerson).
It isn’t just Lucy who calls Cheng this racial slur. Burrows is no exception to the rules either, who lets loose his tirade of racial epithets and expletives across the screen, which leads the audience to believe that these were the norms of society back at that time of 1919. Before there was such a thing as PC culture, people said and did as they pleased without facing any sort of repercussions and with that being said, movies were predominantly geared toward the white audience. Luckily, in more recent years, Hollywood and its film industry has made some incredible strides in diversity. However, the damage had already been done with the outbreak of Griffith’s harsh and racist movies.
Phillip Lopate of Cineaste writes, “We see that his [Griffith] eulogists’ prediction has not been entirely fulfilled, nor discredited. Was there ever so unarguably great an artist who provoked a more complicated, resistant and embarrassed response in his native land?” (Lopate). Lopate brings Griffith’s ideologies to the forefront and is appalled that so many people would still regard his work, despite what it truly represents. Lopate’s views almost ask for a call-to-action on whether or not we should still take his work and teach it, as it does not represent African-Americans in such a positive light.
All in all, Griffith’s work, while powerful and thought-provoking for many people, seen with a contemporary eye is controversial to say the very least and it, nevertheless, demeaned and insulted minorities that his movies were about, thus making it harder for those minorities to be seen in a positive light in the film industry.
- Clark, Alexis. “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Aug. 2018, www.history.com/news/kkk-birth-of-a-nation-film.
- Emerson, Andrew. “Broken Blossoms: D.W. Griffith and Overlooked Racism.” The FilmWatcher, 28 July 2017, filmwatcher.net/index.php/2017/04/07/brokenblossoms/.
- “D.W. Griffith.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 29 Dec. 2008, www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/d-w-griffith-about-d-w-griffith/621/.
- Lopate, Phillip. “D.W. Griffith Masterworks.” Cinéaste, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 49–50. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41689615.
- The Birth of a Nation. Directed by D.W. Griffith, David W. Griffith Corps. 1915.
- Broken Blossoms. Directed by D.W. Griffith, United Artists. 1919