Griffith, Racism, TCM and the Myth of “Classic Movies”

ABOVE and BELOW: The "Clans" as avenging angels flying to mete out death, to the score of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," US, 1915.

The racism of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” is undeniable. You would have to be an apologist for racism to feel otherwise. Yes, it’s a seriously flawed film.  But nearly 100 years since it was made, it no longer has the power in 21st century America to cause even the borderline sociopath to rip up bed sheets tonight, ride out and seek revenge for a stupid, uneducated, white teenage girl who would rather leap off the highest precipice to her death than allow a black man to even touch her.  To my mind, the most offensive part of “Birth” is its distortion of post-Civil War “Reconstruction” of the American south.  But even this would also seem laughably dated and recognized for the absolute lie that it was then and is now, if our children are given even a rudimentary understanding of that period, the attitudes of Americans north and south regarding slavery and racial equality, or even the concept of “states rights,” in the critical years preceding and following the War itself — in my mind, far more important than being taught the names of generals, battle sites and body counts.

Yes, “Birth of a Nation” is now,  to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s phrase, “only a movie.”  But when Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne stated blankly that racism overshadows Griffith’s work — and that’s what he said, “his work,” not just his film, “Birth of a Nation” (which is certainly overshadowed, and its brilliant construction nearly ruined or made beside-the-point by its racist agenda), I felt compelled to respond.  If we are going to tarnish one man’s reputation and his entire body of work while simultaneously celebrating “classic movies,” we owe it to ourselves to at least begin to talk about the 50 years of racist Hollywood, the American film factories of the late 1910’s through the first half of the 1960’s, when black actors in “Hollywood” were essentially a pool of extras — required only when scrub-women, maids, horse-grooms, butlers and shoeshine boys were in the script — and even then studios hired only as many as were necessary to keep the NAACP at bay.

No one in the American film industry talked about race in terms of respect or equality, not  seriously. “Seriously” as in , “Well, now that we’ve dodged congressional hearings on the immoral content of our movies and mollified the Catholic and Protestant churches by implementing a rigid, ultra-puritanical production code to pretend that  sex outside marriage doesn’t (and shouldn’t) exist and violence must be in moderation, why don’t we stop showing minorities acting as toadies and sycophants to white people in our movies?”  Could that have worked?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But we’ll never know because in the front offices of the Hollywood film production studios, and in the boardrooms of their corporate and financial arms in New York, that conversation never happened.

D. W. Griffith was the son of a confederate officer from Kentucky who was wounded in the war, and is said to have eventually succumbed to the lingering illnesses attributed to it while Griffith was still a youth.  It is not surprising that he would have grown up with the mindset that produced “Birth,” though equally culpable is Thomas Dixon, a popular public speaker and racist author of the novel, “The Clansman,” a huge best seller in the early years of the 20th century, on which “Birth” was based (Dixon also served as a consultant on the film).

Griffith, in “Birth,” allowed his southern white heritage of racism — where blacks were the specific object — to come to the forefront.  Griffith never depicted Native Americans and Hispanics in anywhere near the fashion he did southern blacks in this film, in fact he was possibly the first American filmmaker to make sympathetic portrayals of “Indians” in his earliest films at Biograph (“The Redman’s View,” from 1909 being an excellent early example), and his best film from his 1910 trip to California with Biograph was “Ramona,” another adaptation of a late 19th century popular novel, in which the primary characters were Hispanics who had to deal with the “intolerance” of others.

In “Birth of A Nation,” Griffith made no attempt at whitewashing his subject, no toning it down, no going around it, and no hypocrisy.  Griffith even arranged for a pre-release screening of the film for the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.  The President’s verdict?  He said it was, “History written with lightning.”  Wilson was a Virginia native, born before Griffith, before the Civil War; he was also a university president in his home state before being elected to the highest office in the land.

But was Griffith any more “racist” in his filmmaking than those who made or allowed the release of those “classic films” of the Hollywood studio “golden era” in which minorities were for the most part excluded, or present but demeaned?   Or was he a convenient scapegoat?  I don’t think he was a scapegoat then, not in 1915.  He attempted to rebut what he felt was a mis-perception of him, and a misunderstanding of “Birth,” in his next film, “Intolerance” (1916), a study of four periods of human history in which the “uplifters of morality” caused much of the world’s misery.  It was a not-so-veiled criticism, to put it mildly, of his detractors in the more progressive elements of the media — the eastern press — as well as the NAACP — the most vociferous detractors of “Birth” during and after its 1915 release.  It was also a rebuff to the temperance and women’s suffrage movements, both in (extremely) high gear in pre and post-WWI America.   Of course there was at least  one element of American society not at all repelled by the “Birth:”  the long dormant but soon-to-be reorganized and re-energized Klan.

Despite the furor over “Birth,” the American film industry seems to have been largely unaffected, complacent and unmoved.  By 1916, the industry was collectively referred to as “Hollywood,” an identity — an advertising image, having its origin, its “birth,” out of the incestuous, publicity-driven relationship between the early movie print media and the nascent public-relations-advertising arms of the California-based film production units, the studios, in the early-to-mid-1910s (a time when film production and finance were centered in New York).  Christened (forgive me), “Hollywood,” they continued to pour out the same barely disguised racism for the next fifty years.

Much greater racial hypocrisy is found in American movies than in “America’s Pastime,” baseball, during the same era.  It may have taken longer (more than 60 years) for baseball to change, but at least they did, if only in increments over a twenty year period.  And they didn’t break the color barrier by hiring Step ‘n Fetchit instead of Jackie Robinson.  But that’s essentially what Hollywood did: they hired Step ‘n Fetchit over and over and over — for five decades.

Willie Best as "Algernon," the Hollywood-approved black face for white America -- and the film industry's role model for black America -- in the golden era of "Classic Movies." "High Sierra," Warner Brothers, US, 1941. Despite having more lines of dialog and more screen time than all but the top billed actors in the film, Best was billed 16th out of a credited cast of 22, including canine actor Zero as "Pard".

The myth of classic movies — a term I understand as a generic, catch-all label for the product of the film factories of Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century — is that they embody something of a lost era — a golden age of filmmaking of a certain style, an American style.  It was America’s style to incorporate racism in its society, its institutions, its culture, and in its now-“classic” movies.  In that sense == in the real meaning of the word “classic” correctly applied — they are classics of their kind, unfortunately, the racist kind.  Somehow, I don’t think TCM and classic film apologists have the same definition as I do of “classic.”

We celebrate “classic film” and we now hold “classic film” festivals. But we take the low road — the road of hypocrisy — by defacing and devaluing Griffith. The Directors Guild votes to strip his name from their highest honor, an award named for him, the single most important figure in the history of cinema after its invention.  And all that’s left for those who promote this repellent agenda is to say the words,  “Let us speak of him no more.”  But they won’t go that far — they don’t have the balls or the guts.  They have, instead, hypocrisy.

For Osborne to make that statement, as the face of TCM, and as the number one cheerleader of the empty concept of “classic movies,” that was too much.  If Osborne and TCM would introduce their films by saying (and I’m being sarcastic here, but only a little), “This film is overshadowed by racism,” it would be awkward — and sound awful to some — but it would be appropriate and a much-needed corrective act.  Otherwise, to single out just one part of the entire product of 5 decades — just one filmmaker and his entire body of work — serves nothing more than the encouragement and continuation of this self-hating, gutless culture of misguided obeisance to political correctness as atonement for the hate and segregation of our past.

If there is a shadow cast over Griffith’s work, it cannot be any darker than the shadow hanging over the entire period and product of the Hollywood studio film-factory where racism was a hidden clause in the corporate mission statement.  We need to at least acknowledge the hypocrisy and stop it.  By creating this classic movie mythology, we wrongly extol a mythical film product which was, in reality, an all-too-real product of institutionalized racism by the film industry that created those classics — classic racist Hollywood and their classic racist films — and we give those films a redemption they don’t deserve.


I have to emphasize at the end of this bleak essay — and this is in no way an apology for anything stated here — that I’ve enjoyed and feel almost indebted at times, to TCM, their programmers and hosts, Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz, not to mention their frequently entertaining and insightful guests.  Screen caps of films from TCM broadcasts help illustrate this and other posts on this blog.  As I’ve said before in other forums on other issues, criticizing TCM is like criticizing Alcoholics Anonymous — it ain’t perfect, but it’s helped millions.  Sometimes, though, a little tough love might be appropriate.

Souvenir program from the New York City premiere of "Birth of A Nation," 1915. In the collection of the New York Public Library, "Performance Arts in America, 1875 to 1923," donated to the NYPL by Frank E. Woods. Woods was an early film critic from an Erie, Pennsylvania newspaper, and became a scenario writer for Biograph early in Griffith's tenure there. He stayed with Griffith long after Biograph, and co-wrote (among many others) the screenplay for "Birth of A Nation."