I just had lunch with a friend to whom I mentioned watching Birth of a Nation, though not the overall project for which I saw it, and after going through basically everything listed in my response essay, or most of it, she said that I’d only strengthened her resolve to never watch it. Too long, too slow, too racist. And even though I’m pretty well settled in thinking that it’s OK to enjoy the technical aspects (and even the stories) of these movies, despite some of their ugly ideas and portrayals, this conversation rekindled my anxiety that maybe there’s a moral component to liking a movie. Which I don’t think should be the case.
Anyway. I really like Broken Blossoms and one of its most charming aspects is that it’s a modest effort by a hugely talented filmmaker (D.W. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance) who, like P.T. Anderson in Punch Drunk Love, is restraining himself, his inclination toward spectacle, for the sake of telling a story whose power resides in its simplicity. I also found it really moving. But then there’s that moralizing voice in my ear all throughout the movie telling me that I’m an asshole to be liking it so much, and pointing out the fact that our Chinese protagonist is being played by a slouched and squinting white actor (Richard Barthelmess). The movie uses words like “chink” and “yellow” with abandon (the heroine asks, at one point, “What makes you so good to me, chinky?”).
So it feels like I’m falling on my sword to say that I so enjoyed, and will again be watching, this very racist movie wherein a fetishized caricature of the pacificstic Buddhist Chinese man falls in love with an underage-looking white girl who, in the end, suffers a brutal death at the hands of a patriarchal white man whose boozing and brawling is punished, ultimately, but also kind of glorified throughout.
Broken Blossoms is about a young woman named Lucy (Lillian Gish) who works as something like a housekeeper to a boxer named Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) who may or may not be her actual father and is also wildly abusive. A scene where he traps her in a closet is famous for its claustrophobic horror and apparently, on set, it sent a visiting reporter out of the room to vomit. Meanwhile a Chinese shopowner who has come to London to spread the word of Buddha, of peace, ends up falling in love with Lucy and murdering somebody as a result.
One of the things that really stuck with me, weirdly, was the way that all of the older women in Lucy’s life are cautioning her against taking the paths that they took. The housewife, miserable, tells Lucy to never get married. The prostitute tells her not to have sex for money. (In Griffith’s eyes this presumably leaves her with no other option. He’s trying to depict her in a dead-end situation, so this can be read as a telling impression of what he thinks women can do). What it reminds me of – and the reason it stayed with me – is the public high school where I worked for a couple of years as a substitute. I got certified to become a sub because it paid about a hundred dollars a day and didn’t require much effort. I’d give the students their assignments and then basically sit there reading and writing for six hours. It wasn’t all that memorable. The atmosphere definitely left an impression, though, and it was a dreary one, informed by the fact that almost everybody in that building was miserable. Students, teachers, administrators, security, custodial staff – everybody. Seldom a smile in sight. Some of them were passionate about the job, teachers and administrators mostly, and they’d say that it’s rewarding if you’re serious about it, if you’re moved by the cause, but even they were disenchanted by the bureaucracy, the parents, by standardized tests. There were three teachers I’d cross paths with at Corbett’s or Ale House on weeknights and they’d say that they came into the profession with expectations of moving on, pursuing some other line of work, but then they got too comfortable. Good benefits and summers off. They couldn’t let go, and now they regret that they didn’t.
It was hard to respond when they said stuff like this.
And yeah, so, on the subject of things that are hard to respond to: a part of what’s difficult in addressing the issues of race and of gender in these movies, which it’d seem almost morally irresponsible not to do, is that the movies are so troublesome, so easy to denounce for a bevy of reasons, that it seems like paying even just a basic responsible amount of attention to them runs the risk of obfuscating everything else the movie has to offer.
But maybe the rest deserves to be obfuscated if it’s standing in such a shadow?
This is in my opinion the best Griffith did. I understand why you like it and I think I can also explain why. He essentially takes the racism issue and turn it upside down. It takes an outsider, one for whom the society has only scorn, to see the wrongs and abusiveness this girl is suffering, like the merciful Samaritan, and thereby shaming the (white) establishment. This movie was true redemption for Birth of a Nation and never mind the yellow-face. That was par for the course in those days.
Agreed! The yellowface is jarring but, were I to go back to it at this point, I don’t think it’d be all that striking. I think it’s unfortunate that this one is eclipsed even by the notoriety of Intolerance (although I think that Griffith, like so many other artist, is remembered for works of scandal: the controversy around Birth of a Nation and the scandalous failure of Intolerance eclipse the real beauty of some of his work). Did you like the French Revolution one?
Yeah, that one was okay, though a bit too heavy on melodrama