D W Griffith: Father Of Film – tape 1540

Over to Channel 4 now for a documentary series, DW Griffith: Father of Film. A look at the racist innovator of cinema.

Among those interviewed is Lillian Gish.

His first film as director recounts the adventures of a little girl kidnapped by gypsies. So I guess he started as he meant to go on.

Lyndsey Anderson’s narration, at one point, says “A favourite theme for his ‘Racist and Rescue’ was a besieged group facing overwhelming odds.” At least i think that’s what he’s saying. Maybe it’s “Racist to the Rescue” or “Racing to the Rescue”.

Griffith’s seminal work is, of course, Birth of a Nation, originally released under the title The Clansman.

The documentary isn’t remotely trying to downplay the racism – it includes a test scene with an actor in blackface.

Although Griffith’s collaborators, interviewed for the documentary, try to defend him. “He has been accused of being a racist, and I don’t think that he was, consciously. And I think anyone raised in an atmosphere where there were slaves would be unconsciously racist to a certain extent.”

Lillian Gish’s defence is even clumsier. “Mr Griffith loved the black people, we never thought there was anything against the blacks. As you noticed, the blacks are led by a white man who was patterned after Thaddeus Stevens, a Senator, who said to the black people ‘We will crush the white south under the heel of the black south'”

So not racist at all, obviously.

To one Griffith defender, the fact that there were riots and ‘blood on the streets’ was proof it was a great picture.

His later films don’t fill me with confidence of his non-racist nature. Here’s a page from a novel he adapted, about a ‘romance’ between a Chinese man and a 15 year old English girl.

After these three episodes, the recording continues for a bit with the start of a TV Movie called Babies starring Lindsay Wagner. The tape ends after a bit of this.

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5 comments

  1. I’m with Alex Cox on BoaN, it’s really not that great even without the impossible to ignore racism, and all Griffith’s supposed innovations were nicked from the Italians.

    He tried to make up for making the KKK a thing even to this day with Intolerance, which is more acceptable but a lot like Ricky Gervais making those episodes of Derek to prove he really liked people with learning difficulties after insulting them all.

    1. But Intolerance also stemmed from his dislike of censorship and the kind of criticism he got for BoaN. So it’s basically like all the nazis on Twitter complaining about censorship when you block them.

      1. Perhaps it’s more worrying that BoaN was a huge success and Intolerance was a complete flop. All right, there is a heavy dose of “protesting too much” in the Shakespearean sense about it, but at least the criticism of his biggest hit stung Griffith. He’s never lived it down, even 100 years later.

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