D.W. Griffith in Black and White
Was the Birth of a Nation director really a racist?
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."
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.
But casting Griffith as a fire-breathing racist and pro-South pamphleteer perhaps gives him too much credit. Outside of a vague Southern populism, the director had no personal politics to speak of. 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.
Scene from His Trust No celebration of Griffith's many gifts can be extracted from his films' awful treatment of race. 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.
Scene from The Birth of a Nation The Birth of a Nation, Griffith's best movie, is even more troublesome. 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. 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? There's no evidence from his biography that he cared very strongly about racial politics at all. 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." The director never publicly lobbied for segregation or black disenfranchisement; he defended the Klan only as a historical 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. 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.
Watching the Kino discs, you get the sense that Griffith was less a racist than a careless thinker who fell hard for others' ideas. The Clansman, upon which Griffith based much of The Birth of a Nation, 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.
Scene from Broken Blossoms Shocked at the uproar that Birth caused among liberal intellectuals and the NAACP, 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.) 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.
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). 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. 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.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.