D.W. Griffith - The Scourging
feature by Gregory Avery , 21 January 2000

When the Directors' Guild of America announces their annual award nominations on January 24, there will be one name that will not be among them. Current Guild president Jack Shea has announced that the name of D.W. Griffith will be stricken from the honorary award given by the Guild for career excellence. The reason has to do with Griffith being a "racist" director, and that, through his work, in Shea's words, he "helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes."

No matter how many films they may make during their careers, one film will usually stick to a director, whether it be Mike Nichols with The Graduate, or Martin Scorsese with Raging Bull (a film which, upon its initial release, was so uncommercial that it actually set Scorsese's career back by several years), François Truffaut with The 400 Blows or Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. For Griffith, that film has been his 1916 The Birth of a Nation, probably the most widely-seen film ever made, the first feature-length film ever made, the first commercial film to be release with a running time of over two hours, a film whose battle scenes have been likened to the classic Civil War photography of Mathew Brady, and a film which U.S. President Woodrow Wilson likened to "history written by lightning." The film is remembered for a number of reasons, including its use of a mobile camera, of optical effects, of cross-cutting, and for using superimpositions and split-screen effects. It also contains, mostly in its second half depicting the South during Reconstruction, what many regard as adverse depictions of African-Americans, and uses white actors in key roles wearing "blackface" makeup.

I have often wondered how Griffith's reputation would have fared were his 1918 film The Greatest Thing in Life still in existence. A victim of nitrate decomposition and eventual destruction, it was the third in a triptych of war films which began with Nation and continued with his First World War film Hearts of the World (also released in 1918). In The Greatest Thing in Life, the main character, a prejudiced white soldier, comes to the aid of a blinded, fatally wounded black soldier who cries out in panic and terror. The white soldier helps him, comforts him, ensures that the dying man's final moments are ones spent in peace, and experiences a profound change of heart as a result of his experience.

The film is said to have been immensely moving. It is also the only other of Griffith's feature films that dealt directly with white people's attitudes towards persons of color. But in its absence, and with the absence of much of Griffith's work from the public view (Kino Video's release of Way Down East, for instance, is currently in moratorium), those critical of the director can reduce his work downwards with one stroke.  Never mind that the DGA has only now realized this, after having given out the award in Griffith's name for forty-six years. Or that there has been no vocal protests about changing the award's name on the same scale as those being held over the fate of Elian Gonzales. Or that, on January 8, the National Society of Film Critics, for the first time in the organization's history, issued an open letter asking that the Guild rescind its decision. Or that Griffith made over 400 films prior to Birth of a Nation, most, if not all, social-minded, and that he continued to make social-minded films after the production and release of Birth of a Nation. Griffith is, now, plainly and simply, a "racist" director.

And, not only that, but, depending on which news story you read, he is being excoriated for creating a film which caused the resurgence, in the 1920s, of the Ku Klux Klan as a hate group. (which is untrue: social and economic conditions, in the Northeast and South, after the First World War were the cause for the Klan's revival.)

How historically accurate is Birth of a Nation? Griffith said that what he wanted to get at was the "truth" about conditions in the South during the Reconstruction, and it is a matter of record that freemen did extract some amount of vengeance upon former slave owners for what they experienced under slavery. William Styron's 1966 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, offers a vivid, even terrifying, portrait of such actions. It is a page of history that Hollywood was unable to deal with even in the late Sixties, when Norman Jewison wanted to direct a film version of Styron's novel, starring James Earl Jones. The studios' unconditional turndown of the film is said to have been one of the great disappointments in Jones' career.

The first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was in response to the lawlessness and injustice that was being extracted, mostly by carpetbaggers from the North, upon Southerners during the Reconstruction, a time when many people took advantage of the circumstances to further their own means or, worse, to punish the South for its instigation of the Civil War. Lawlessness broke out, and the courts could not be counted on to enforce justice. As a result, the organizers of the Klan took matters into their own hands, and punished offenders through "underground" means. Parades of Klansmen, on horseback, wearing their white, hooded uniforms and insignia, would create periods of quiet and civil order in towns and localities where there had been unrest.

When some groups wearing Klan outfits began committing lawlessness, the original organizers of the group issued an order to disband in 1869. An 1871 Congressional report on Klan activity, which encompassed 13 volumes, included the summary statement: "Had there been no wanton oppression in the South, there would have been no Ku Kluxism [sic]. Had there been no rule of the tyrannical, corrupt carpetbagger or scalawag rule, there would have been no secret organizations. From the oppression and corruption of the one sprang the vice and outrage of the other."

Griffith, born in Kentucky in 1875, the son of a Confederate cavalry officer known as "Roaring Jake" Griffith, and raised in a household amid stories of the Civil War, was not out to glorify the Klan with Birth of a Nation. The once-proud North Carolina family, the Camerons, shown in the film could very well have been his own, for the Griffiths had been reduced to poverty as a result of the Reconstruction, and David Wark Griffith worked in Louisville taking odd jobs to support his family before he was pointed in the direction of a career as a stage actor. What Griffith saw in the source material, Thomas Dixon's novel, The Clansman, was a base upon which he could depict how Northerners ran roughshod over the South after the war and following Lincoln's assassination (the president who succeeded Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, became so ensnared by political maneuverings in Washington that he was virtually rendered ineffective), and that Southerners responded by having to resort to vigilante means.

If he had hewn to this more closely, the film might have better withstood the test of time. But Griffith was also fond of the use of melodramatics. Thus the scene where the corrupt political leader Silas Lynch, a mulatto (the product of a white man and a, possibly unwilling, black woman), attempting to force the white daughter of a Northern reformism to marry him, and the scenes where enraged blacks, in militia uniform, storm a cabin to get at a handful of defenseless white people huddling inside. When this sequence floods across the screen, it is admittedly difficult to maintain some sort of objectivity.

If Griffith is truly guilty of anything, it is of directorial choices in Nation that look bad in hindsight, and for not displaying a modern politically-correct attitude. He was raised a Southern gentleman, and he worked as an actor on the stage at a time when the conventions of the minstrel show were widely accepted. But he did have the vision and courage to move the motion picture beyond the level of filmed skits into something more ambitious and vital. In terms of technical innovation, one would hope to be able to make as much of a protean contribution, a leap into the land of the unknown, as Griffith did.

But I think the reason that an eighty-five-year-old film like The Birth of a Nation continues to affect people long after other various bits of flotsam and jetsam have passed down the stream is because Griffith made pictures with something that used to be called "moral fervency," as well as technical aptitude. He was against censorship, believed in showing the bad as well as the good, and spoke his mind. I think he was concerned about hurting people with his work. After the NAACP voiced objections to aspects of Nation, Griffith expanded the film he was then currently working on, The Mother and the Law, into a four-part depiction of injustice through the ages, Intolerance, a film into which he poured all his earnings from Nation and which would never end up making a dime, but he made the film. (And Intolerance is the film which, from my standpoint, is Griffith's true masterpiece, every bit as alive and moving today as it was when first released.)

A still painting can depict the beauty of a tree, Griffith pointed out, but a moving picture can depict that beauty as well as the beauty of the wind moving through that same tree, and it is for this reason that we also cannot reject all of Griffith's work out of hand. That would comprise a considerable amount of work. Lillian and Dorothy Gish as sisters who are separated, but then reunited, by chance, in Orphans of the Storm. Lillian Gish baptizing her newborn child in a snowbound cabin in Way Down East. Lillian Gish, again, hiding within a closet, terrified of being beaten by Donald Crisp, in Broken Blossoms. The valiancy of Constance Talmadge's character, the "mountain girl," in the Babylonian sequences of Intolerance, and the beautiful spiritedness of Mae Marsh, in the modern sequences of that film (Marsh's best screen acting work, before she went on to make studio films and remade herself over as a Star). The stark, even harrowing, quality of Griffith's last film, The Struggle, with its depiction of a spirited, perfectly happy man, a good husband and father, gradually reduced, through chronic alcoholism, into a shambling, incommunicative animal.

After the release of The Struggle, in 1931, Griffith never worked as a director again. For the next 17 years, he shuttled between his ranch, in the San Fernando Valley, and Hollywood. In the 1940s, he would speak with journalist Ezra Goodman about the current films being shown and coming innovations, such as the "broad" or "wide-angle" film format, which he believed would combine visual and pictorial depth and clarity in such a way that would bring together the best qualities of both film and the theatrical stage. (And future films, from Lawrence of Arabia to the recent The Insider, bore him to be right.) On later trips to Hollywood, though, he would check into his room at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, opening his door only to take in meal trays or deliveries of liquor. He gave up on writing his autobiography, said that Birth of a Nation and Way Down East weren't so hot after all. "In my arrogant belief," he said, "we have lost beauty."

In 1959, eleven years after Griffith's death, Frank Capra stated, "Since D.W. Griffith, there's been no major improvement in the art of film direction. Of course, there have been the strictly technical improvements -- many. But as far as sheer creative direction is concerned, no one really has advanced beyond the achievements of Griffith. Run down the whole gamut -- starting with his introduction of suspense, editing, the flashback, close-ups. You name it, and I can show you where he employed it." The occasion for these remarks was Capra's receiving the Screen Directors' Guild's D.W. Griffith Award for "creative achievement in the film industry."

Of course, it's the Guild's award and they can do with it however they wish. As Steve Martin said of the Academy Awards, "It's their contest." (With the emphasis on the word "their," not "our.") But how much further should we take the stick to Griffith's back for Birth of a Nation? And at what cost?

Lillian Gish was fierce and unflagging in her devotion towards Griffith all her life. She so believed in Griffith as a director and an artist that, during the sequence in Way Down East where her character's unconscious body floats downriver on an iceflow, Griffith told her to trail one hand in the genuinely icy water, and Gish did as he requested -- resulting in permanent nerve damage to that hand for the rest of her life. But that did not dissuade her feelings about Griffith. During one of the televised American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards ceremonies in the Seventies, she addressed the student filmmakers who had just been given awards bestowed in Griffith's name, and, in a voice which pealed like a bell, Gish told them to honor well the name of the man that is on those awards. Gish was one of the first people to work, ceaselessly and tirelessly, towards film preservation in America. She was the one who pointed out that the twentieth century is the first time in history where man could record the events of times he was living in using moving pictures.

The Birth of a Nation is a record of its time. It was an attempt, by the sensibilities that existed in 1915 and 16, to depict the struggle and outcome of one of the worst times in American history. Some of the attitudes that have become attached to this film are ones which I do not, and can not, advocate. I do not believe in the demeaning of any group or minority in ways that are pernicious. I have seen firsthand the pointlessness and petty meanness of people who hurl abuse at persons who mean no harm yet are hurt because their skin was not white, and could not defend themselves from receiving abuse because of it. And I have seen and experienced the hatred and viciousness that comes from other forms of abuse, and the further harm, and evil, that can be caused by it.

I do not know if The Birth of a Nation has caused anyone who has seen it to become a racist. I do not think D.W. Griffith was a hatemonger. If he had been, he wouldn't have made the films that he made. If anything, he tried to present in Nation a depiction of the time of the Civil War and afterwards that was, to him, accurate, and in some respects was, but which is in other ways faulty, whether because of erroneous perceptions on his part of some of the people he was depicting, or because of the accepted attitudes at the time the film was made towards those people.

But he should not be denied his place in history. It was a hard-won place. He bucked the odds considerably with Intolerance, alone. He would not live to see that film's estimation elevated. If he paid a price for the stigmatization of Nation, he did so in his final years. Let us acknowledge what may be wrong with Birth of a Nation, but let us also acknowledge what is right about the rest of Griffith's work. Let us give him the benefit of a fair mind.



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