Mark Harris says the group made the right decision to rename its award

By Mark Harris
January 14, 2000 at 12:00 PM EST

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The latest about the Directors Guild controversy

The first movie controversy of 2000 is upon us, and surprisingly, the brouhaha concerns what the Directors Guild of America thinks of an 85-year-old movie made by a director who was born 125 years ago. The filmmaker is D.W. Griffith, and what’s started the fireworks is the decision by the DGA to remove Griffith’s name from its directorial career-achievement award — a prize that has gone to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, and George Cukor — and rename it after someone else. At issue is ”The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic, a landmark in the history of film — and, in its shoddy treatment of African-Americans and its veneration of the Ku Klux Klan, a low point in the history of racism on screen.

The National Society of Film Critics, which has been handing out its own prizes since 1966, is furious at the DGA’s decision. In a public letter to the Guild, they rightly point out that in a career encompassing literally hundreds of films, Griffith also made such masterworks of compassion as ”Broken Blossoms” and ”Intolerance.” But when they denounce the Guild’s decision as ”a depressing example of ‘political correctness’ as an erasure, and rewriting, of American film history,” they’re wrong in a way that verges on the deliberately misleading.

In fact, the only rewriting of history that’s going on is the labeling of Griffith as a victim of political correctness (a shopworn term that’s too often used by people who hold offensive beliefs but prefer to imagine themselves as heroic battlers against a liberal orthodoxy, and a phrase that a group of professional writers should be above using). Griffith is not being punished by changing tastes or times — far from it. In fact, ”The Birth of a Nation” was widely denounced back in 1915 by groups, both white and African-American, who knew even then that its mastery of film technique in the service of hateful and appallingly skewed storytelling was deeply offensive.

Was Griffith a great director? Absolutely. Should his films — including ”Nation” — continue to be shown and studied by anyone with a serious interest in the first century of cinema? That’s beyond dispute. But the beginning of film’s second century is a good time to say that Griffith is not the pinnacle to which directors of the next 100 years should aspire. Did the National Society of Film Critics consider how such African-American directors as Spike Lee, Carl Franklin, Julie Dash, Sidney Poitier, and Kasi Lemmons might feel if they were ”honored” with a lifetime-achievement award named for a director whose most famous film made heroes of the Klan?

The Directors Guild is right to realize that it can do better. Honoring Griffith as a filmmaker is one thing; using his name to honor every filmmaker still to come is another. There are any number of great directors whose visions of humanity were far more generous than Griffith’s. As the Guild begins its search for a new name to put on its award, they might start by looking at Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux, born in 1887, made his first film in 1919, traveling from town to town to raise the money himself. He went on, against enormous odds, to have a successful 30-year career in the director’s chair. Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of him: He was black, and his parents had been slaves.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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