After hundreds of films, from silly pranks and comic burglars to back-alley Musketeers and various "trusts"--both girl and man, border-state soldier and loyal slave--D.W. Griffith stuns with his ambition--and outrages. I have heard that some seats are selling for $2; that alone is a revolution--the little picture, five minutes of gesticulation and baggy pants, of wringing hands and sudden rescue, must now serve a post-Cabiria Moloch, hallowed and hungry.
And somewhere in the dust the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rises against Pharaoh. But Pharaoh--that is, Woodrow Wilson--proclaims, "It is like writing history with lightning," adding "it is all so terribly true." How could a prostrate people argue with such poetry and such unalloyed wisdom?
The slaves, ex-slaves, and Negro members of the legislature in this film are animals, almost to the last one of them. Cowards, boasters, brawlers, and dangerous fools--except for those who remain true to their trusts, of course. These--so often white actors in blackface--grin and bow and stand with their betters. It is all appalling and heart-warming, one and then the other.
But blast it what an accomplishment! It goes on and on, and the battles and parlor-dramas, loves lost and found, bonds forged, broken, mended, move with such self-assuredness across the screen that even Cabiria must lower its head in passing. Griffith may not have smashed the cinema-toy, but we know now that, while the toy will continue to charm, the photoplay will forever want to be more than a diversion. My chagrin at this high-reaching film's contribution to the race problem is threatened with extinguishment in the full force gale of Griffith's visual achievement--so complex, so subtle, that it gives new strength to the old caste system endemic to slavery. As W.E.B. DuBois has pointed out, the social construct that shored up slavery was "too simple to be either just or true"; so, as the years passed, new waves of slavery had to form, to carry the injustice along what should have been a current of life, liberty, and the pursuit--ah, but we know the rest (or we should). Now, though, even the cinema is recruited in the foul redaction of race-hatred: revising slavery for publication, as it were, false pity masking fear of and disgust with an entire people.
Occasionally, the film halts so that Griffith can present a historical tableau: Lincoln's assassination, the signing of the Treaty--and the Clansmen on horseback, another long diagonal line, their white robes cutting the frame in half, pure and true--as true as the painstaking recreations of schoolbook moments, true as slavery. It is this merging of fact and fearful dream, of history and the myth of caste, that sends the greatest tremors through this film--and my heart. True, its childish depiction of blacks follows a long line--one which will, of course, continue--in which Jews and the backwoods poor dutifully fall in--buffoons for a democratic age. That kind of mockery is, if I may wrestle DuBois' truth to unhappy ends, "too simple to end." But something is added, the "lightning" patina of history, and the burlesque of skin color and class is no longer silly but savage, and poisons the first American masterpiece.
That is a regrettable justice: My beloved moving picture matures, and turns bully--in one of the oldest senses of that word: the ruffian protector of a prostitute. It seems I've written myself into moral dyspepsia. Must have been something I watched--and read, the Lusitania down* and the War certain to spread here, stain upon stain.
*Editor's note: The Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. The ship sank in less than twenty minutes, with almost 1,200 casualties. International outrage fueled anti-German sentiment and provided further justification for the U.S.'s entry into World War I.