While exploring the University of Washington library’s online silent movie databases while at work one day, I discovered a 1919 film called Broken Blossoms. Intrigued by its description as one of the first positive portrayals of interracial romance in cinema, I began to stream the opening credits, and was startled by the name listed as its director: D.W. Griffith. My only prior knowledge of Griffith came from his infamous 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which defends slavery and glorifies the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Consequently, I had hitherto regarded him as a villainous figure, and assumed his main contribution to history to have been a negative one.
Incredulous that anything as seemingly progressive as Broken Blossoms could come from a person like Griffith, I watched the entire film during my off-work hours, and was amazed and touched by its beauty and sensitivity. The Chinese protagonist, Cheng Huan, is portrayed as a kindly Buddhist missionary to London, who provides sanctuary to an abused teenage girl named Lucy, protecting her from her father and eventually falling in love with her. Though dated in its casting of a white actor to play Cheng Huan, casual use of terms now considered offensive slurs, and infantilizing portrayal of its heroine, the film’s overarching message of shared humanity between people of different races is extremely clear and far ahead of the time in which it was made. That Griffith produced Broken Blossoms in a period of widespread anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S., taking a major political risk on behalf of a persecuted community, made it all the more remarkable and challenging to my prior judgments.
Of course the progressive spirit shown in Broken Blossoms can never exonerate Griffith for his bigotry in Birth of a Nation, or for the terrible social consequences of that film. It may even increase his guilt, by demonstrating his ability to see past racial boundaries and thus making his failure to do so with respect to African Americans in Birth of a Nation all the more distressing. But if nothing else, it proves that D.W. Griffith was more than just a villain. Rather, he was a complex and deeply conflicted person, whose moral standing and overall legacy cannot be easily determined.
Watching Broken Blossoms while reflecting on Griffith and his place in history, I couldn’t help but think of a far more recent film, 2012’s Cloud Atlas (reviewed here), which muses how “by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.” Incidentally, I also discovered in my browsing of the database that Griffith anticipated the premise of Cloud Atlas nearly a century before its time, with his epic Intolerance in 1916, which similarly interweaves multiple stories from different eras, exploring the rise and fall of civilizations and the eternal struggle between cruelty and compassion. Griffith’s own legacy serves as a reminder that this struggle occurs not between clear-cut heroes and villains – of whom history admits very few examples – but within the heart of every individual.
(Author’s note: this article is a modified version of an essay I wrote for a UW library student worker competition, for which I was awarded a $1000 James L. and Virginia D. Ferris Scholarship)