“Pioneer, visionary, ‘father of film technique,’ primitive poet, social agitator, king of screen sentiment and melodrama—all are apt descriptions of David Wark Griffith, the first of the great film directors.”
On Film, A History of the Motion Picture
“It is unfortunate that the reputation of pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith will forever be stained by virulent racism of his 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. The controversy surrounding that film has blinded many viewers to the fact that Griffith made a number of films seeking to expose and oppose racial prejudices.”
William M. Drew
Got a few hours to spare? Three to be exact. Here’s D.W. Griffith’s response to the negative feedback for making The Birth of a Nation, the epic Intolerance.
“In his next picture, Intolerance (1916), Griffith made an impassioned plea for peace and tolerance, cutting back and forth between two epochs. The structure was too demanding for contemporary audiences; the tone excessively preachy. Worse, it was released on the eve of America’s entry into the European war, which pacifists and dissenters were considered as traitors. Its failure was a setback for Griffith—and for movies of shaping history.”
Hollywood: Legend and Reality
Edited by Michael Webb
Other Griffith films pointed out as being empathetic to minorities are Ramona:A Story of the White Man’s Injustice (1910)—which was based on a book and true story—and The Red Man’s View (1909) both featuring Native Americans, and Broken Blossoms (also titled The Yellow Man and the Girl) was perhaps the first positive interracial (white-Asian) relationship captured on film. When the movie was released in 1919, interracial relationships were actually illegal.
Other defenders of Griffith point out that in his 1911 film The Rose of Kentucky that the conflict actually centers around a man refusing to join the KKK and is critical of the modern-day version of the group. Still others say that Griffith merely chose to make The Birth of a Nation because of its large scale visual spectacle. Griffith is quoted as saying, “I could just see these Klansman in a movie with their white robes flying.” No doubt, visually stunning—but packed with deeper philosophical ramifications.
I’m certainly not an expert on the KKK, but in Melvyn Stokes’s book D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, he states that, “In 1869, (the KKK’s) Imperial Grand wizard, ex-Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, formally disbanded it. Embers of the Klan still glowed, however, and those embers were finally extinguished by the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871, which provided that the Klansman could be tried for their crimes in federal court.”
Meaning that at the time of Griffith’s birth in 1875, the KKK for the most part was gone. There’s no doubt looking back on all of this almost 100 years after from the making of The Birth of a Nation, and over 150 years after the start of the Civil War (or “the War Between the States” as some of my Southern friends call it)—that we’re swimming in murky waters, and the truth is hidden in there somewhere. What we do know is there is a lot of ugliness in American History, and one thing The Birth of a Nation does is expose that ugliness.
What is clearer in 2008, is that Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States. And as I’ve said before, even if you stand across the aisle politically from the president, you have to marvel at the symbolism—and the journey. What an amazing history—scars and all—the United States has had in its 230+ years.
Griffith continued to make films into the ’20s and some historians believe that his Orphans of the Storm was his best film ever. Though he made the transition into making “talkies” his first, Abraham Lincoln (1930) was not a hit, and The Struggle (1931) also proved to be a box office and critical disappointment and was his last film. He was fifty-six years old.
“Having for several years suffered from a drinking problem, Griffith conceived of a film that, while opposing Prohibition, reflected his own torments. The Struggle relates the story of a good-natured but weak-willed working man who succumbs to the allure of the speakeasy, causing a personal decline that nearly destroys his family.”
William M. Drew
In a show of that film last year at The University of Chicago they started a description of The Struggle by saying, “By 1931, Griffith was dismissed by the industry he had created.”
The final year of D.W. Griffith’s life (1948) was lived in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood where he lived alone and reportedly spent much time in the Renaissance Bar telling stories about the good ol’ days of Hollywood. In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award—its highest honor, but in 1999 according to Wikipedia, “the DGA Board announced that the award would be renamed the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award because Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation ‘helped foster intolerable and racial stereotypes.’”
D.W. Griffith is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky.
I traded a few emails with writer/director Brian McDonald, author of The Golden Theme and The Invisible Ink blog, screenwriting teacher, and Pixar consultant (and who just happens to be black) about how he handles talking/teaching about Griffith and The Birth of a Nation, and he replied;
“There is this myth that talking about racism somehow creates it, but it is in not talking about it that we keep it going. We must talk about these things or we will never be rid of them. When we teach Birth of a Nation we have to teach both the artistry and the bigotry…I think we can take the good with the bad with those old filmmakers,
but we do have to talk about the bad. If we don’t we condone the bad with our silence.”
And that’s what I’ve tried to do in these three posts about Griffith. And one thing I did learn from Brian yesterday is that throughout the South there were postcards mass-produced of lynching of black men. “Sometimes printed in the ten of thousands….and sold in drugstores and pharmacies,” according to a BBC documentary. I understand why some would rather forget this history, and also understand why others never want it to be forgotten.