The story of the Northern Stoneman family and the Southern Cameron family is played out over many years. A lot happens in the film: a war, the struggles of courtship, the power struggles of Mr. Stoneman, who, not so distressed by the loss of President Lincoln, uses the rise of freed slaves as a platform for his own political ambitions. Lincoln is treated respectfully in this film, but probably had to be for by 1915, President Lincoln had become an icon of virtue to the North if not the whole country, and presenting him in any less light than angelic would have been too much controversy for Griffith to withstand. Lincoln was no such icon of virtue to the North or South during the Civil War, but then, it sometimes serves filmmakers not to be too accurate.
The main focus of the controversy is the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan as a virtuous home army defending downtrodden whites from the anarchy of black rule. While most of the Negro extras in the film are played by African-Americans, the principal black characters are played by white actors in blackface. This turns these characters into broad caricature. Insulting, yes, but looking back with 21st Century eyes, it is also ridiculous to the point of wondering how anybody in his right mind could have swallowed this foolishness, and why a seemingly intelligent man like Griffith could have thought it artistic or accurate.
One might just as well wonder why Don Imus would make those ignorant remarks against the Rutgers women’s basketball team, now in the 21st Century, in an attempt at humor by using the same techniques of condescension and caricature. Because some people do find truth in innuendo, swallowing it with a smirk, even now. Some even believe caricature.
When both the Northern Stonemans and Southern Camerons unite to defeat the marauding blacks, and the white actor in official Hollywood mulatto makeup who has made improper advances to Lillian Gish of all people (gasp!), they are said to be joining together in “common defense of their Aryan birthright.” Chilling connotations to be sure, but Adolf Hitler, then a corporal in the Kaiser’s army when this film was released, would have swallowed it and even rejoiced. His country would lose a war, too, and they would find scapegoats, too.
Griffith gives us what he believes is a happy ending, when the blacks are defeated and denied the right to vote, the Stonemans and Camerons are united in the double marriage ceremony among sons and daughters, and younger daughter Flora Cameron, played with spirit by Mae Marsh, preserves the virtue of her Southern womanhood by leaping off a cliff to her death rather than submit to that old fate worse than death at the hands of a white actor in blackface pursuing her for marriage. Stunned was Mr. Griffith when his audiences, just like the Confederate States of America, rebelled. Stunned, too, supposedly, was Mr. Imus when the public rebelled. Condescension and caricature work only up to a point. Then, you must make legitimate the reasoning behind your prejudice. Most often, it can’t be done.
That's all for this week. See you Monday.
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