Radical Reconstruction in Hollywood

On the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony you'll hear lots of names tossed around but you won't hear any mention of the man who did more than anyone else to create the film industry in America; D.W. Griffith.

Before Griffith's time, the early 1900s, the quality of motion pictures was poor and films were too short to tell a complete story. D.W. Griffith revolutionized filmmaking. His creations and achievements are too lengthy to catalogue here but they include techniques such as the close-up, the fade-out, panning shots, high-angle shots, expanding and contracting a scene, the flashback, and crosscutting to show simultaneous action. His revolutionary panoramic battle scenes and tense dramatic action depictions have been copied by most of the famous directors.

Griffith is reported to have made 450 films and unlike some directors, he survived the transition from silent to talking pictures. He also established the careers of many famous actors and actresses. In 1920, Griffith, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin formed the United Artists Corporation, which has grown into one of the largest filmmaking studios.

A list of the one hundred most influential people in the history of American filmmaking was recently compiled with the selections ranked in order of influence. D.W. Griffith was in eighth place. Last year, A&E's Biography series requested a panel of experts to determine the one hundred most influential people of the millennium just ended. Only four selections from the film industry were chosen, all from the United States – Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Steven Spielberg and D.W. Griffith.

The Academy Awards ceremony has always included the presentation of an Oscar to the best director of the year. But in 1953, the Directors Guild of America decided to create an award for those unique directors who have a lifetime history of significant film achievements. These directors would receive the highest honor the DGA could bestow, the "D.W. Griffith Award". Recipients of this special DGA award include such luminaries as Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman and John Huston.

When Stanley Kubrick won this award, his acceptance speech included these comments about D.W. Griffith: "He was instrumental in transforming movies from the nickelodeon novelty to an art form. And he originated and formalized much of the syntax of movie-making now taken for granted.(Griffith) left us with an inspiring and intriguing legacy, and the award in his name is one of the greatest honors a film director can receive."

Recently, however, the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume complained to DGA President, Jack Shea, that one of Griffith's films is insensitive to blacks and therefore Griffith was a racist. Mfume also complained that no Black director has ever won this special award.

The film in question,"The Birth of a Nation," is regarded as the greatest film of the silent era. It begins in the 1700s, depicting pre-Civil War events, the War itself, and goes on to chronicle Radical Reconstruction in the South. Griffith, a Southerner, was born during Reconstruction but was too young to remember it himself. However, his parents, relatives and neighbors had only recently suffered through this ill-advised social experiment and their bitter recollections of demeaning events were impressed upon the young man's mind.

In his film Griffith portrays the dark side of Radical Reconstruction. He does not falsify history, but, to heighten dramatic effect, he uses poetic license in his portrayal of the disruption of Southern society. Characterizations of blacks in the film have been deemed " racist" by today's politically correct standards. But, are they more offensive than Hollywood's stereotyped portrayals of White Southerners?

Incredibly, the President of the DGA, Jack Shea, responded to Kweisi Mfume's complaint by immediately changing the name of the D.W. Griffith Award to the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award. Jack Shea acted alone in making this decision claiming that "seeking a membership vote would have been very unwieldy". Considering the outrage expressed by DGA members, it is unlikely that the motion would have survived a vote by the membership.

Interestingly, this covert PC decision took place around the same time as the controversy regarding the flying of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol. The Confederate flag incident was widely reported in the national media but you would have been hard pressed to find a mention of the DGA's furtive removal of Griffith's name from their highest award.

The National Society of Film Critics issued the following statement: "The recasting of this honor, which had been awarded appropriately in D.W. Griffith's name since 1953, is a depressing example of u2018political correctness' as an erasure, and rewriting, of American film history, causing a grave disservice to the reputation of a pioneering American filmmaker."

The change also brought angry responses from Europe. London-based film historian, Kevin Brownlow wrote, "It's very childish to start picking on something somebody did 85 years ago and say, u2018That represents the man and, therefore, we are not going to use his name again.' This is a man who made 400 films before he made u2018The Birth of a Nation,' let alone all the others he made afterward. This is the man who shot the feature film that caused the big theaters to be built, the feature to become standard and the middle class to be won over to motion pictures. Without Griffith, these fellows wouldn't be working."

To the Associated Press, Mr. Shea claimed that he consulted the DGA Board before making his decision and he tried to justify his refusal to seek input from the Guild's members. His rationalization was pure PC: "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."

This marks another effortless victory for the NAACP's ongoing, and highly successful, campaign to remove from American culture anything it finds displeasing. Kweisi Mfume apparently knew that Jack Shea was the perfect patsy; a man without integrity, a moral jellyfish, who single-handedly trashed the memory and reputation of D.W. Griffith, whose prodigious achieve ments Mr. Shea could never hope to rival.

February 28, 2002