Taking the easy way out

The Directors Guild erased D.W. Griffith's name from its award but can't erase his legacy.


January 16, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

About a month ago, the Directors Guild of America did a very cowardly thing for a very noble reason.

The national board of the directors' union unanimously voted to abolish the guild's D.W. Griffith Award and to create a new Career Achievement Award to honor "distinguished achievement in motion picture direction."

The Griffith Award, the guild's highest honor, has been bestowed since 1953 for a director's body of work. Past winners have included Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Capra, Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick.

In a press release, guild president Jack Shea was quoted as saying, "As we approach a new millennium, the time is right to create a new ultimate honor for film directors that better reflects the sensibilities of our society at this time in our national history." He continued, "There is no question that D.W. Griffith was a pioneer whose innovations as a visionary film artist led the way for generations of directors. However, it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes."

At first blush, the guild's decision is understandable. The man's work did indeed foster intolerable stereotypes. It seems not just insensitive but hostile to pretend that his legacy is a proud one. To honor his name with such a prestigious award is to ignore the anguish that his work caused.

However, as well-intentioned as the guild's gesture may be, it is also an example of the bad faith, intellectual dishonesty and denial that have surrounded questions of race throughout the movie industry's history. The right thing to do would be to keep Griffith's award and face his legacy squarely instead of hiding it under the skirts of the "new millennium."

Making movies an art

D.W. Griffith, of course, virtually single-handedly created the cinematic grammar with which filmmakers have communicated for the past century. Born in Kentucky in 1875, the son of a Confederate war veteran, Griffith backed into directing after a spotty career as an actor.

But he soon discovered that his love for the novels of Dickens, his rapport with actors and his ability to collaborate (specifically with cinematographer Billy Bitzer) gave his movies a dynamism and naturalism that had been missing in the new medium. Using varied camera angles, sophisticated editing techniques, an intimate acting style and the moralizing, melodramatic story lines he loved to read, Griffith proved that movies could be more than static, theatrical nickelodeon fodder. Indeed, he created the templates on which nearly every modern-day blockbuster is based.

That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. But there's no denying that he, more than any other filmmaker, made film a vehicle not just for escape or momentary diversion, but for artistic expression. He made the medium an equal to the novels, operas and plays that had heretofore been the chief purveyors of our myths, legends and primal narratives.

He tapped into just such a primal narrative in the film for which the guild is currently punishing him. Made in 1914, "The Birth of a Nation" was a historical epic based on the best-selling novel "The Clansman." At once a romance, a war picture and a political polemic against racial integration and equality, the film stands today as one of the most troubling contradictions in film history. Beautifully filmed and edited to weave together a number of story lines and historical moments, "The Birth of a Nation" is also an outrageous expression of hate and fear, perpetuating stereotypes of African-Americans that are painful and humiliating to watch.

Even more painful is the fact that the film wasn't simply an expression of Griffith's personal beliefs, though he was a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan and an unreconstructed South.

"The Birth of a Nation" found eager and enthusiastic audiences when it was released in 1915, a time when America was experiencing profound anxiety and hostility surrounding Reconstruction, and a time when Jim Crow was just around the corner. In many quarters Griffith was "credited" with breathing life into the modern Klan, which reportedly experienced an increase in membership after the film's release.

To watch "The Birth of a Nation" is to confront some of the most distressing truths of American history. The first film to command an unheard-of $2 at the box office, "The Birth of a Nation" became one of the most successful movies of all time, making it the first example of how the cinema could make millions with sentiment, spectacle and cynical pandering. To watch "The Birth of a Nation" is also to witness the exhilarating birth of an art form, one that then-president Woodrow Wilson (whose own writings provided aid and comfort to Griffith) called "writing history with lightning."

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