Today is D.W. Griffith’s birthday. What I typically do on this day is to try and strike a balance, by celebrating the pioneer film-maker’s contributions while condemning his obvious faults (as in this post). All artists are mixes of good and bad (some of them really bad), but frankly I’m never going to stop watching, enjoying and admiring the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski...or even D.W. Griffith (except for…ya know).
But this year, I just can’t get past the “ya know”. With Ferguson and Garner and similar cases still in the air, and in the wake of thought-provoking movies like Twelve Years a Slave and Selma, and especially this year’s HISTORIC screening of the previously unreleased Bert Williams feature we wrote about here.
This latter thing especially sticks in my craw. The MOMA curators speculate that the reason the film was not released at the time it was made (1913-1915) was the racial unrest in the wake of Birth of a Nation, and the backlash against blacks — of all things! — that happened in the aftermath of that film. And for a show business buff who kind of tracks these movements in his head, the timing of all this makes sense. From the 1890s through the 1910s, there was a first wave of real African American cultural advancement, with quite a long list of distinguished artists emerging (Scott Joplin, Williams and Walker, Aida Overton Walker, Cole and Johnson, Black Patti’s Troubadours, etc etc), and the first all-black shows on Broadway and so forth.
After these inroads, however, and despite the continuing popularity of jazz (usually as appropriated by whites) a new period of racism started in the 1920s lasting for at least another good half century. Essentially, the nation went from a climate in which producers were willing to experiment and gamble on a feature film starring Bert Williams….to a climate in which a typical appearance by a black in a Hollywood movie might be, say, Louis Armstrong’s token cameo in High Society (1956). We don’t really, REALLY get back to something like Williams’ situation until the 1980s, with the advent of Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, Denzel Washington etc (Sidney Poitier? Kind of. But I think even he was kind of hemmed in).
But just think what might have happened if the Bert Williams feature had been released, what it might have done for people’s attitudes, both black and white. Theatre audiences warmed up to Williams; cinema audiences would have too. A certain kind of progress might have been made. But that moment was pre-empted. By a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Nope. Can’t celebrate that today, nope, not even with a qualification or an apology.