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
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
"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
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