Sunday, January 25, 2009

D. W. Griffith on Race

In 1909, D.W. Griffith made Red Man's View, a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans which was, at the time, atypical. In 1919, he made Broken Blossoms, an interracial love story, which was daring considering interracial marriage was illegal at the time. In between these racially progressive films, he made Birth of a Nation, a glorification of the KKK and a defense of their intimidation tactics.

These examples suggest that Griffith's racial attitudes are nuanced or complicated, but in fact, they are deceptively simple; Griffith has an intellectually lazy algebra that equates certain virtues with the race that epitomizes it. In both Red Man's View and Broken Blossoms the white characters are violent brutes who can stand to learn the values of kindness, honor, and humility from the other noble non-white characters. In Birth of a Nation, the black characters are uncivilized imbeciles that are better off deferring to their intellectually superior countrymen and not being tricked into voting for the wily carpetbaggers that are only trying to exploit their gullibility.

If Griffith was simply suggesting that we'd all benefit from a healthy exchange of ideas informed by our cultural backgrounds, he'd be making a compelling argument. But this interpretation is undermined by how inauthentic the portrayals of non-white characters are; the Chinese character in Broken Blossoms is an opium addicted shopkeeper and the Native American characters in Red Man's View are also broadly drawn stereotypes that don't add any insight into their cultures beyond what mainstream white culture perceives it to be, which makes the argument that "we ought to learn from their example" self-serving.

The Dragon Painter was another film with Asian characters made the same year as Broken Blossoms. It was directed by and stars Sessue Hayakawa as the lead, and almost the entire cast was ethnically Japanese, whereas Griffith had white actors playing all the Chinese roles in his film. In his defense, this was a common practice at the time. Hayakawa, a frequent leading man, was an exception.

No comments: