PBS Spotlights Pioneer Filmmaker `American Masters' Finds Genius and Racism in D.W. Griffith

Article excerpt

AMERICAN culture is not homogeneous. It is rich, varied, and vigorous - and it goes right on producing genius.

The "American Masters" series on PBS, now in its seventh season, documents 20th-century creativity with a tenacious creativity of its own. Taking on individual artists rather than movements, it has provided a broad-based vision of American artistry in jazz, classical, and pop music, as well as dance, literature, theater, film, visual arts, and television - with occasional forays into science.

A recent series of profiles of American filmmakers captures technical advances along with the spirit of the filmmakers' work. They are all excellent, but among these is a real gem of a documentary that will reintroduce viewers to the power of cinema and the technical and artistic achievement of its first great director.

"D.W. Griffith: Father of Film" (PBS, Wed., March 24, 8 p.m. - check local listings) is a riveting three hours of history - a balanced and lively portrait of the man who virtually invented the grammar of motion-picture storytelling as it is still practiced today. What Griffith didn't invent, he improved on. He borrowed tricks of the trade and lifted them to the level of artistic achievement.

But genius or not, Griffith was a flawed individual, and the film does not shirk its responsibility to deal with the gravest of these flaws. Griffith made arguably the single most controversial film of all time, "Birth of a Nation" (1915). Seeing it again after many years, I found it just as shocking as the first time. He devised many of the worst cinematic stereotypes about African-Americans ever foisted on the American public. Though he indicates his affection for the "happy" slaves of yesteryear, the blacks of Reconstruction times he pictures as venal, cruel, bloodthirsty, and lecherous. The Ku Klux Klan and its leaders are pictured as heroes.

One witness who was a child when the film came out in 1915 spoke of seeing the film in an all-black theater. Men and women wept and gasped at the dreadful images of their race. The film sparked picketing by African-Americans at many theaters. Denunciations came from religious leaders. Race riots broke out in many cities, the film was used by the Klan to recruit new members, and the film did incalculable damage to blacks and to race relations.

Yet "Birth of a Nation" was also a brilliant work of cinema. When it wasn't the basest kind of propaganda about the South, it created a thrilling fantasy of history, including the Civil War, a riveting tale of brave men and women facing hard times and great odds. …