Debating an Icon's Genius, Racism:
D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation' stands as a seminal work, even as it demonizes blacks and glorifies the KKK. The Directors Guild has drawn fire for stripping his name from its top prize.

February 1, 2000, By Robert W. Welkos, Los Angeles Times

It had been weighing on his mind for more than a year, ever since several African American directors expressed concern that the Directors Guild of America's prestigious life achievement award was named for D.W. Griffith, whose 1915 film "The Birth of a Nation" glorified the Ku Klux Klan and seared racial stereotypes into the collective conscience of moviegoers everywhere.

Jack Shea, the president of the guild, came away from that encounter unsettled. He had never really thought of it in those terms, he would later recall. "The Birth of a Nation," after all, was considered a masterpiece of the silent era whose innovative techniques, such as crosscutting and deep focus, are still studied in introductory film courses.

Yet Shea also knew there was no denying the film's racist content.

Based on a popular book and stage play titled "The Clansman" by the Rev. Thomas Dixon, Griffith's sweeping film of the Civil War and Reconstruction contains many degrading images of blacks and depicts the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue of white Southerners imperiled by northern Negroes and white carpetbaggers.

When it was shown in a large theater to the accompaniment of a live orchestra, white audiences of the era often stood and cheered. It even led to a revival of the KKK. But the film was so controversial that it triggered riots in theaters, was banned in some cities and became the focus of street protests by the fledgling National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which has been battling the film ever since.

In November, Shea went before the guild's national board in New York asking it to endorse his decision to rename the D.W. Griffith Award. With little debate and no input from the guild's nearly 12,000 members, the board unanimously concurred.

On Monday, Steven Spielberg, who has won Oscars for "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" and whose body of work includes "Jaws," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," the Indiana Jones trilogy and the black-themed saga "The Color Purple," received the guild's newly renamed DGA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Just as the Confederate battle flag fluttering atop the South Carolina statehouse has triggered impassioned debate on whether the flag symbolizes a region's racist past or simply honors its Southern heritage, a continent away another debate has been raging over the symbolism evoked by the late D.W. Griffith, often described as the founding father of the American cinema.

But whereas the flag debate in Dixie seems polarized between liberals and conservatives, the debate over Griffith and his legacy is taking place in one of the true bastions of liberal politics--Hollywood.

Indeed, some of the harshest critics of the guild's decision are respected film critics, university professors and authors who abhor the racism contained in "The Birth of a Nation" but believe Griffith's silent epic is a landmark achievement despite its content.

The guild's action was hailed by many as long overdue and morally justified. But it touched a raw nerve in the film community at large, leading to a vigorous debate over age-old questions about censorship, intolerance and whether great art in the service of hateful ideology should be praised or damned.

'Rewriting' of Film History Decried

"It's very childish to start picking on something somebody did 85 years ago and say, 'That represents the man and, therefore, we are not going to use his name again,' " said London-based film historian Kevin Brownlow. "This is a man who made 400 films before he made 'The Birth of a Nation,' let alone all the films he made afterward. This is the man who shot the feature film that caused the big theaters to be built, the feature to become standard and the middle class to be won over to motion pictures. Without Griffith, these fellows wouldn't be working."

It was, he added, as if politicians had begun dismantling the Lincoln Memorial because they disliked some of the things the Great Emancipator had said about blacks.

The 53-member National Society of Film Critics issued a statement deploring the board's action:

"The recasting of this honor, which had been awarded appropriately in D.W. Griffith's name since 1953, is a depressing example of 'political correctness' as an erasure, and rewriting, of American film history, causing a grave disservice to the reputation of a pioneering American filmmaker."

"Griffith was a great artist, but he wouldn't be the first nor the last great artist to be racist," said Armond White, an African American film critic for the New York Press, who voted to endorse the critics society's resolution deploring the DGA action.

"It's ridiculous to rewrite history that way," White added, arguing that the DGA's decision "suggests there is no more racism today or racism in the film industry, when we all know the problem still exists in the film industry."

But those who defend the board's action argue that Griffith's pioneering work behind the camera cannot erase the racist images flowing from "The Birth of a Nation."

"There is no question that D.W. Griffith was a great pioneer and, in America, the father of the modern film industry," said African American actor and director LeVar Burton, who starred in the landmark TV miniseries "Roots" and is now a DGA board alternate. "The work for which he is probably best known--'The Birth of a Nation'--is, without question, a powerful piece of filmmaking, but in terms of the content, there can be no question that it is . . . a racist tract.

"I can admire [Griffith's] place in history and some of his contributions," Burton added, "but I don't admire his politics."

In many ways, the soul-searching at the Directors Guild reflects the growing diversity of the board itself. Of the current 21-member board and its 23 associate members and alternates, 13 are women and three are blacks. And, although such black directors as Gordon Parks, William Craine and Ivan Dixon served on past boards, the board seated its first African American officer last year when Paris Barclay, a DGA award winner and co-executive producer of the CBS drama series "City of Angels," was elected third vice president.

"It was a white boy's club," Burton said. "The face of the DGA is changing. When in history has there been as many people of color and women on the board of the DGA?"

As he lunched at his house one Saturday with a black director, Shea inquired that his guest thought of Griffith's name being attached to the guild's highest award, one that has been conferred on such legendary filmmakers as Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.

"I asked him if he thought it was a bad name," Shea recalled. "He said, 'Jack, I got to tell you, any African American director knows enough about the situation that he's going to tell you he's offended by it."

Concerned that one day an African American--or a director of any color--would win the award and refuse to accept it, Shea conferred with former guild presidents, Griffith biographer Richard Schickel, and either personally or by letter with all nine living recipients of the award, including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Robert Wise. All agreed the time had come to retire the D.W. Griffith Award.

In December, the guild announced its decision, praising Griffith as a "brilliant pioneer filmmaker" but adding "it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes."

Film Audience Cheers KKK

For Barclay, the decision to retire the D.W. Griffith Award was sweet news.

Barclay remembered the first time he saw "The Birth of a Nation" and the powerful, frightening pull it had on the audience. As an English major at Harvard University, Barclay recalled, he had stepped into a campus theater to attend a screening of the silent classic.

"I knew it was an important film to see," Barclay said, "but I was not prepared for what it contained. I did not know that the KKK would be the heroes and people in the audience would be cheering for the KKK. This was in the late 1970s. The film is so persuasive. That is what is so scary about it. [The audience] found themselves cheering for the KKK to get those bad black guys and lynch them."

Still, Barclay stressed that by taking its action, the DGA board was not endorsing censorship.

"We are not saying 'The Birth of a Nation' should be banned and never shown again and that D.W. Griffith's name be besmirched," Barclay explained. "What we are saying is that the DGA should not name its highest honor after that particular filmmaker."

Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, whose credits include "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," said a membership-wide debate should have taken place "before you take down what is arguably the greatest name in American film."

"The Directors Guild pays for the maintenance of Griffith's grave because he died a pauper," Friedkin said. "Are they now going to contest that?" [The DGA Foundation, since 1949, has maintained a perpetual memorial at Griffith's grave site in Crestwood, Ky.]

Shea said that seeking a membership vote would have been "very unwieldy," and added that "the membership didn't have anything to do with the formation of this award." That decision, he said, rests with the guild president in consultation with past presidents.

The guild will continue to prominently display Griffith's photo along with past award winners outside the sixth-floor boardroom at DGA headquarters.

In his 1988 book "Blacks in American Films and Television," Donald Bogle wrote that Griffith introduced "the mass movie audience to the black film stereotypes that were to linger in American films for the next 70-some years--the noble, loyal manageable Toms, the clownish coons, the stoic hefty mammy, the troubled 'tragic' mulatto and the brutal black buck."

"In the fields, darkies contentedly pick cotton," Bogle writes of Griffith's depiction of the pre-Civil War South. "Mammy joyously runs the big house. All is calm, at peace, in order during these glory days of the Old South."

Then Reconstruction rears its head.

"The old slaves quit work to dance," Bogle adds. "They roam the streets, shoving whites aside. They take over the political polls, disenfranchising the white citizens. A black political victory culminates in an orgiastic street celebration. Blacks dance, sing, drink, rejoice. Later they conduct a black Congressional session. . . . They gnaw on chicken legs and drink whiskey from bottles while sprawling with bare feet upon their desk."

One of the movie's more memorable scenes depicts a black "renegade" pursuing a delicate young white woman to a rocky cliff where she jumps to her death to avoid being raped.

Film scholars do not defend the content of Griffith's film, but are alarmed that the DGA board did not give greater weight to Griffith's overall contributions to their craft.

Rick Jewell, associate dean of the USC's School of Cinema-Television, said the guild's action smacked of "political correctness run amok."

"I think the DGA, in trying to do something that they thought was beneficial to minorities and to their own image, have shot themselves in the foot," Jewell said. "People who know about the history of cinema know what this man contributed to it. Those contributions were enormous."

Jewell doesn't dispute that the film has the power to create controversy. "When I first started teaching cinema, 'The Birth of a Nation' would be shown in almost any sort of survey of film history," he recalled. "Over time, because of the controversy of the film, you might show excerpts of the film in class, but almost nobody will show the whole film anymore."

Robert Sklar, a professor of cinema at New York University, remarked: "I'm not going to say this is outrageous and an act of censorship because the film is still there, Griffith's name is still in the history books . . . On the other hand, you would hope they would have done a better job of explaining what they were doing."

Sklar said that certain films like Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 German film "The Triumph of the Will," an infamous documentary of Adolf Hitler's 1934 Nuremberg rallies, can be admired for its technical achievement while deploring the message.

'By Any Standard,' Director Was Racist

Film historians point out that after "The Birth of a Nation" was censored in many cities, Griffith became an ardent foe of censorship in motion pictures. His 1916 silent classic "Intolerance" was seen as an attempt to answer his critics. Griffith's 1919 film "Broken Blossoms" told the story of a Chinese man who protects an abused waif from her brutal father.

Griffith's defenders note that as the son of a Confederate soldier, he grew up hearing stories of the South wronged by Reconstruction and that his views were rooted in his era.

But Schickel, the author of "D.W. Griffith: An American Life," said that "Intolerance" and "Broken Blossoms" notwithstanding, "by any standard [Griffith] was a racist."

"There are people who instinctively react, 'Oh, God, it's just political correctness,' " Schickel observed. "There's some truth in that, I suppose. But on the other hand--I guess I can say this as Griffith's not entirely admiring biographer, I don't mind if they are renaming the [DGA] award. His attitude is manifest in that film and is undeniable."

As late as the 1930s, Schickel said, when Griffith was trying to get projects off the ground, "he was still playing the race card in letters and memos to studio people." If there is a defense, the author added, it would have to be that "he was a man--and a Southern man--of his time."

copyright 2000

More on the controversy.

Buy books on D.W. Griffith:

Pearson, Roberta E.
Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films

Schickel, Richard
D.W. Griffith: An American Life

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