Race in the Early Films of D. W. Griffith
Silent film pioneer David Wark Griffith, a native Kentuckian of Anglo-Welsh descent called by Jewish film historian Ephraim Katz “The single most important figure in the history of American film, and one of the most influential in the development of world cinema as an art,” has long been lionized in racialist circles as pro-white because of his classic The Birth of a Nation (1915). Left-wing critics, in turn, project a lurid image of the director as a sort of satanic “racist.”
I watched a number of Griffith films, including several of his early shorts, to gauge for myself how well the ideological consensus accords with fact. Together, Birth and Intolerance alone required 6 1/2 hours to view. Many who write about Griffith and The Birth of a Nation, positively or negatively, probably have not watched his films.
Nevertheless, it is useful to analyze Griffith’s work from a racial point of view because he is such a central figure in the history of cinema, and his alleged “racism” has over time become a key count in the Left-wing indictment of everlasting white bigotry.
One can consult numerous conventional sources for reliable information about Griffith’s many cinematic innovations. But none of them will be honest about racial matters.
A Southerner in New York and Hollywood
D. W. Griffith was born and raised in Kentucky, and regarded himself as a Southerner.
He grew up listening to exciting tales of the Civil War and Reconstruction told by his father and his friends, all of whom were veterans. His father’s Confederate mini-biography can easily be read on the family tombstone.
Griffith grew up and made his films during a period of reconciliation between North and South. It wasn’t until after WWII that anti-Southern bigotry began to permeate American society—a veiled way for elites to express their anti-white racism.
A failed stage actor and playwright, Griffith began acting in motion pictures in 1907 at the Edison Studios, founded and owned by inventor Thomas Edison.
Edison invented modern motion picture equipment—cameras, projectors, and viewers—and constructed the world’s first movie studio. His earliest films were synchronized talkies. Celluloid film rolls were manufactured by George Eastman to Edison’s specifications on 35 mm stock with four perforations on each side of the frame, a standard that remained in effect thereafter.
In 1896 Edison’s Vitascope, which projected films onto a large screen before an audience, was unveiled in a program of 12 short subjects, one of which was hand-colored, during a vaudeville show at a top New York City theater. This marked the beginning of a new art form and a great new industry—motion pictures.
The following year Griffith moved to the Biograph Company of New York City, where he did his most important early work. Biograph was Edison’s chief rival at the time. In the early days, American motion picture production was headquartered in New York City and nearby New Jersey.
During its sixth season, Biograph advertised in a trade journal that its films were shown in the principal music halls and vaudeville houses of the world. A list of predominantly vaudeville theaters playing Biograph films from coast to coast was provided, including several Keith and Orpheum theaters and, abroad, the Folies Bergere in Paris, the Winter Garden in Berlin, and the Palace Music Hall in London.
Beginning as a writer and actor at Biograph, Griffith was quickly drawn into more and more aspects of production. In 1908, at age 33, he directed his first movie, a 12-minute short.
For almost two years from the summer of 1908, Griffith personally directed all or most Biograph motion pictures. Thereafter, as the firm’s general director, he superintended all studio production and directed its most important films through October 1, 1913.
During that period, 1908–1913, Griffith directed some 450 films, most of them short
subjects 12 minutes to 30 minutes long, a pace of output rarely if ever equaled.
From the beginning, Griffith questioned everything about film. He instinctively realized that telling a story with a camera was completely different from photographing a stage play.
“His innovative achievements in liberating the cinema from the restrictive traditions of the stage,” Ephraim Katz wrote, “are all the more remarkable” given his theatrical roots.
Quantity alone did not make Griffith’s early film career so extraordinary. From the very start, he showed a remarkable instinctive understanding of the creative potential of the medium, using inherently cinematic techniques—changing camera angles, intercutting, crosscutting, parallel action, camera movement, dramatic lighting, the close-up, the full shot, rhythmic editing, etc. He wasn’t the first to employ these techniques, but he was the first to use them consciously and creatively, taking the linguistic components of film and molding them into a syntax, thus giving cinema an articulate language all its own. (The Film Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., HarperCollins, 1998)
Griffith was extremely fortunate to have ground-breaking German American
cinematographer Johann Gottlieb Wilhelm “Billy” Bitzer as his close collaborator. The duo became the best-known director-cameraman pair in the history of American film. As close as brothers, they had a chemistry unmatched in the industry. Griffith’s intricate stories were brought to life by Bitzer’s photography, culminating in The Birth of a Nation (funded in part by Bitzer’s life savings) and Intolerance. Griffith and Bitzer worked together so closely on so many productions that it is difficult to determine which one contributed what to their many joint ventures.
Bitzer’s innovations include the fade out, the iris shot, soft focus photography, filming entirely under artificial lighting, lighting close-ups and long shots to create mood, and the perfection of matte photography. Bitzer died in Hollywood in 1944 in relative obscurity.
As early as 1909 Griffith gathered a group of young actors and rehearsed them constantly to extract performances more suitable to the magnifying eye of the camera than the bombastic, exaggerated delivery then used on the stage.
He quickly developed a stock company of players that included such future stars as Mary Pickford, sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Mabel Normand, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Lionel Barrymore, Donald Crisp, Mack Sennett, Owen Moore, Wallace Reid, and Harry Carey.
Lillian Gish by Cecil Beaton
In 1910 Griffith began taking his company to California during the winter to take
advantage of its sunny climate and great variety of background scenery. His In Old California (1910, 17 mins.) was the first motion picture ever shot in the then-tiny village of Hollywood. Until 2004, the first film (incorrectly) believed to have been made there was Jewish director Cecil B. DeMille’s race-mixing (white/Indian) drama The Squaw Man (1914).
Ambitious to produce bigger films than Biograph was willing to back, Griffith left the company in the summer of 1913, taking most of his regular actors and the best of the technical crews—most importantly, cameraman Billy Bitzer—with him.
As an actor and filmmaker in New York City and Hollywood, Griffith necessarily interacted often with Jews.
Though raised a Methodist, Griffith, a Freemason, was not particularly religious. At times his films glorified a secular kind of “Christianity,” but weren’t in any sense doctrinally or theologically orthodox.
In 1919 Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Pickford’s husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. founded United Artists Corp. (UA) to free themselves from the tightening grip over the industry being exerted by Hungarian-born Jew Adolph Zukor, founder and head of Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount Pictures).
Although UA was perceived as non-Jewish, Chaplin was a Jew (or part Jew) and Pickford was married to Douglas Fairbanks, a half-Jew. The head of the firm was Hiram Abrams, a former president of Paramount Pictures, who, like so many of his fellow tycoons, started out in the penny arcade business.
Because so many of Griffith’s films for United Artists lost money, he came into conflict with his partners. After surrendering creative control to work briefly for Adolph Zukor, Griffith switched to making films at his own studio in Mamaroneck, New York for several years.
He returned to UA in 1927 without regaining creative independence. UA’s chief executive by then was Russian-born Jew Joseph Schenck, later the founder and head of 20th Century-Fox. In order to win financial backing for his movies, Griffith had to sign a contract forfeiting to Schenck the voting rights in his remaining shares of UA stock, as well as final script approval for his movies.
Griffith’s films for Schenck were unsuccessful. The industry had changed, and the highly-regimented, factory-like studio system stifled the director’s creativity and initiative.
Depiction of Race in Griffith’s Early Work
As noted, Griffith directed hundreds of shorts for Biograph prior to making The Birth of a Nation, many of which contained identifiable racial themes. (Note: the early movies I’ve personally watched are marked with an * in the following discussion.)
White ethnics, Indians, Chinese, Mexican Americans, Jews and other groups feature prominently in these films, although Negroes do not.
American Indians constitute the non-white group represented most frequently in Griffith’s Biograph productions—roughly 30 films. His treatment of Amerindians was consistently positive.
Anti-white film critic Richard Schickel wrote that the films were “notable for their extremely sympathetic treatment of the Indian as a natural nobleman.”
Most of Griffith’s melodramas present Indians as victims of explicitly white—not “American,” not “settlers,” not “soldiers,” or any similar euphemism—cruelty and immorality.
In the Biograph films, Indians, the victims of white assaults, murders, and expropriation, elicit sympathy, while white pioneers, soldiers, and miners are portrayed as rapacious malefactors.
The Call of the Wild (1908) features an attractive Jim Thorpe-like protagonist, an Indian football hero and honor graduate of Carlisle Indian College who falls in love with his white mentor’s daughter. She rejects his advances. After backsliding and intending to kidnap the young woman, the Indian acquits himself honorably.
The Redman’s View* (1909, 15 mins.) scornfully portrays “The Conquerors” (white men) cruelly driving Indians off their land in a manner reminiscent of the “Trail of Tears”: “Is there no land where we may rest our heads?” Whites even force the heroine, a beautiful young squaw (Lottie Pickford), to remain and toil (and perhaps more) for them.
Ramona: A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian* (1910, 16 mins.) was based on an 1884 novel by Helen Hunt Jackson about a half-white, half-Indian orphan (Mary Pickford) who suffers racial discrimination in Southern California after the Mexican-American War. Griffith, who starred as the Indian Alessandro in a traveling stage production of Ramona in California in 1905, was intimately familiar with the book and its theater adaptations.
There are pronounced themes of interracial romance and sex (during marriage) between the half-breed Ramona (with whom white female readers and filmgoers were intended to identify—Ramona still thinks she’s white when she falls in love across the color line) and an Indian (Henry B. Walthall) and Mexican man.
An immediate bestseller, Jackson’s novel was immensely popular. Sixty years after publication, 600,000 copies had been sold. To date there have been over 300 reissues, and the book has never been out of print. It has been filmed four times (first by Griffith), broadcast over the radio, and in 2000 aired as a Mexican telenovela on TV. The Ramona Pageant, an outdoor play performed annually since 1923 in Hemet, California, is the longest-running, largest outdoor play in the United States, and the official state play of California.
Ramona was a fictional follow-up to Jackson’s non-fiction book A Century of Dishonor (1881), a study of white mistreatment of the Indians. The novelist hoped to manipulate readers’ emotions and arouse sympathy and concern for the red man as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had for Negroes.
“I am going to write a novel,” she wrote, “in which will be set forth some Indian experiences in a way to move people’s hearts. People will read a novel when they will not read serious books.” And: “If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one-hundredth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful the rest of my life.”
Ramona cast white Americans as villains, and Indians in the ever-popular, stereotypical role of noble red men.
As the movie’s subtitle indicates—A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian—Griffith’s movie is explicitly, not implicitly, racial, accounting for such intertitles as “The whites devastate Allessandro’s village” and “The whites’ persecution: ‘These lands belong to us.’”
Such was the story whose movie rights Griffith purchased. The novel written by a white woman as an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Indians obviously achieved its intended purpose.
Louis Reeves Harrison, reviewing the movie in 1910 for Moving Picture World, described a capacity audience of appreciative white businessmen for the film’s premiere. Mary Pickford’s brother Jack played a boy in the movie, and another of Griffith’s stock players, future comedy producer Mack Sennett, portrayed a white exploiter.
The Squaw’s Love* (1911, 12 mins.) is an example of a purely Indian tale with no whites involved. Some of Griffith’s surviving Biograph shorts, including this one, lack the original intertitles. This tale, apparently about lovers from warring tribes, is, like most silent films, almost unintelligible without them. But there is certainly nothing racist about it.
A white prospector wins the love of Indian royalty in The Chief’s Daughter (1911), but “cruelly casts her aside” when his white sweetheart arrives from the East.
The good-Indians bad-whites theme resurfaces in Heredity: The Call of the Blood Answered (1912, 17 mins.). Harry Carey plays a “white renegade” father who buys a squaw. The woman gives birth to their child, who is raised by Indians. As he reaches manhood, “the racial difference between father and son is felt.” After the renegade father sells bad whiskey and inferior guns to the tribe, the son repudiates him, the white villain dies, and the young man and his mother are “reclaimed by their own.”
At least Heredity correctly recognizes which group the son properly belongs to—though only, one suspects, because it is the more “righteous” one.
At the beginning of The Massacre* (1914, 30 mins.) white soldiers ruthlessly slaughter the inhabitants of an Indian village; in retaliation, Indians massacre a wagon train of white settlers. The cavalry arrives too late—only the heroine and her baby survive, buried (literally) amidst a pile of corpses. It is hard to draw a clear-cut racial lesson from this movie; perhaps it seeks to demonstrate the futility of war.
The lone pro-white exception among Griffith’s many Indian films appears to be The Battle at Elderbush Gulch* (1913, 30 mins.) featuring Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Lionel Barrymore, Harry Carey, Elmo Lincoln (subsequently the silent screen’s Tarzan), and Blanche Sweet. It provides 30 minutes’ blessed relief from the noble red man narrative. After getting drunk and feasting on dogs, the Indians rouse themselves to viciously attack white settlers, driven by “the ever ready spark to hatred of revenge.”
But even here a lowly, ill-treated Mexican, not a white man, risks all to ride courageously through enemy lines to summon the troops.
The Zulu’s Heart (1908) is the earliest Western-made movie set (but not shot) in South Africa. A family of white settlers is attacked by a tribe of Zulus (played by white actors in blackface). The father is killed, but the little girl wins the affection of an upright Negro warrior who recently lost his own daughter. Ultimately, he intervenes to save the white mother’s life as well.
In Swords and Hearts (1911, 17 mins.), dashing Confederate Hugh Frazier, reduced to poverty, is saved by his loyal black retainer, Old Ben, who rescues the family strongbox from a fire, and from Frazier’s enemies.
In 1911′s Rose of Kentucky, Klan nightriders are the villains.
Easily Griffith’s most extensive cinematic treatment of blacks before The Birth of a Nation was 1911′s His Trust: The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of An Old Negro Servant* (14 mins.) and its sequel, His Trust Fulfilled* (17 mins.). Together the films present a tale of devotion and self-sacrifice by an old Negro servant who, faithful to his Confederate master’s charge, cares for the soldier’s widow and daughter during and after the Civil War.
Old George is the only black character featured prominently in a Griffith film prior to The Birth of a Nation—which likewise depicts noble blacks who remain loyal to white families.
Some scenes, admittedly, look funny today, with actors in blackface dancing jigs of joy as they celebrate their white masters’ leave-taking. On the other hand, scenes of drunken, looting, burning, vandalizing, bluecoats are rarely if ever seen in Hollywood films.
Not only are there no bad blacks in these two movies, but the Southerners (never mind the reprobate, pillaging Yankees!) are revealed as completely callous and self-absorbed. All the old, broken black gentleman gets for his unselfishness and loyalty is a firm handshake from a white attorney at the end! The young girl he has sacrificed everything for ignores him entirely.
How many theatergoers of the day felt any sympathy for the whites in His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled? It is virtually impossible to do. By not making whites the stereotypical bullies of the Indian pictures, Griffith damns them all the more completely.
The script for Old Isaac, the Pawnbroker (1908, 10 mins.), directed by Wallace McCutcheon, is attributed to Griffith, who’s also listed as a supporting actor; the second half’s plotline sounds virtually identical to the second half of Romance of a Jewess. The studio’s 1908 capsule summary read: “The portrayal of [Jewish] charity is the theme of the Biograph’s story, which dissipates the calumnies launched at the Hebrew race.”
Forever “persecuted,” yet forever the beneficiary of endless, tear-jerking propaganda!
Romance of a Jewess* (1908, 16 mins.) is much more crudely made and acted than Griffith’s first film the same year, The Adventures of Dollie. A pawnbroker disowns his daughter because he objects to her marriage to a man—whether white or Jewish I couldn’t tell (a Jewish source states the character is Jewish). Insufficient intertitles make the story difficult to follow. Both direction and script are attributed to Griffith by historians (no screen credits are provided), though I have doubts about this—the film has a non-Griffith feel to it. It contains brief exterior shots of a teeming Jewish neighborhood in New York City, reportedly the Lower East Side.
A Child of the Ghetto (1910, 15 mins.) is an interracial romance between a New York Jewess and a rural white farmer. The Jewess, a seamstress, flees to the country after she is wronged by the son of the Jewish factory owner she works for. Exterior ghetto scenes were shot on Rivington Street on New York’s Lower East Side. In the opinion of a modern Jewish reviewer, “The city is seen as a place of hardship, exploitation, and false accusation, while the country offers health, trust, beauty, and love.” Again, it promotes interracial mixing of Jews and whites, albeit opposite from the real-life pattern of Jewish men with white women.
Griffith’s final film for Biograph was Judith of Bethulia* (1914), a Ben-Hur-like Gentile conceptualization of Old Testament Jews. One hour long, it was America’s first feature-length movie. Filmed in 1913, Judith was a large-scale production for its time. The story, from the Book of Judith, an Old Testament apocryphal text not included in the Protestant Bible, was partly adapted from a poem by Thomas Bailey Aldrich.
During the siege of the Jewish city of Bethulia by the Assyrians, a Jewess devises a plan to save her beleaguered tribe. She disguises herself as a harem girl and slips into the Gentile camp, where she seduces Holofernes, King Nebuchadnezzar’s general, and beheads him while he is passed out drunk. She returns to her city a heroine, an assessment the audience is invited to share.
Griffith’s first film as a director was The Adventures of Dollie* (1908, 12 mins.). A little white girl is kidnapped by a Gypsy and his wife after the mother, portrayed by Griffith’s first wife, actress Linda Arvidson, refuses to purchase the man’s wares. The Gypsy seals the child in a wooden barrel, but after floating downriver she is rescued. Since the villains aren’t white, this certainly constitutes “hate.”
In The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908), José, “a handsome young Mexican,” is the noble hero.
Charlie Lee is the protagonist of That Chink at Golden Gulch: A Chinaman’s Sacrifice Through Gratitude (1910). His description as “a saffron-skinned Pagan, his soul is white and real red blood pulsates his heart,” suggests race may be only skin deep.
But if such is the case, non-whites can also be evil: Pong Lee in The Fatal Hour: A Stirring Incident of the Chinese White-Slave Trade (1908) is a “Mephistophelian saffron-skinned varlet” who trades in white women but receives his just desserts in the end.
* * *
There is little doubt that D. W. Griffith was race conscious. A variety of races are featured in his films, though blacks—the notoriety of Birth of a Nation notwithstanding—only rarely.
Griffith’s race consciousness a century and more ago was explicitly framed in terms of whiteness. This fact is quite striking.
Unfortunately, the majority of the films display hostility toward whites vis-à-vis their racial competitors. There are only a handful of exceptions, including The Adventures of Dollie (1908), The Fatal Hour: A Stirring Incident of the Chinese White-Slave Trade (1908), The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913) and, of course, The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Far more common are films with racially harmful messages such as Ramona (1910) and Broken Blossoms (1919).