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D.W. Griffith’s Interracial Same-Sex Kiss

BY ON April 7, 2015

Gish and Barthelmess Broken Blossoms.jpg

In “Broken Blossoms,” a 1919 Griffith film, an interracial heterosexual kiss is so fraught it cannot occur.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned studying history it is that the world is always more complicated than widely accepted narratives allow. The corollary to that is that social progress is not as smooth as popular culture would have our undergraduates believe. That was brought home to me recently when I started reading Donald Bogle’s history of African Americans in film. My copy of the 2001 edition had not arrived yet, so I read the first chapter in the 1994 edition and good thing I did, as there was an astounding paragraph about a moment of interracial same-sex intimacy in a D.W. Griffith film that had been cut from the subsequent edition.

If you know anything about US History, African American History, and/or film history, the name D.W. Griffith raises a very straightforward debate about racism in popular culture. Griffith was the filmmaker who directed Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, a film that is associated with the revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Rarely can we document a piece of culture’s direct impact, and yet this film led directly to a new KKK, one that dominated local governments around the country and terrorized people of color, Jews, and Catholics. The film was powerful in part because its feature-length cinematic portrayal of the “Dunning School” of Reconstruction History was so much more dramatically and technically sophisticated than previous films. I often show the chaotic scene in the South Carolina capitol to my history students, pausing on the slide that claims that this image is an exact reproduction of a photograph from that era of state governance, even including a citation to indicate its historical veracity. Talk about the way films shape our understanding of the past!

You can imagine my surprise, then, to come across this section in the 1994 third edition of Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), about another Griffith film released just three years after Birth of a Nation. This one, The Greatest Thing in Life (1918), was about The Great War in the very midst of that conflict. It was, Bogle writes,

a film so removed from the mainstream that it was hard to believe it was directed by one so much a part of the mainstream as D.W. Griffith. It represented a curious departure from the sentiments expressed in The Birth of a Nation. Released in 1918, its theme, says Lillian Gish [the actress who portrayed pure white womanhood in Birth of a Nation], was its director’s favorite—‘The brotherhood of man.’ In the climactic scene, a white racist Southern officer finds himself sharing a shell hole with a black private. At first there is great hostility. But war makes strange bedfellows—and evidently compatible ones. For when the white officer is hit by an enemy shell, the black soldier rescues him. In doing so, he saves the life of the officer but is critically wounded himself. Dying, he calls for his mother, requesting a last kiss. The injured officer grants that request. He pretends to be the black man’s mother and kisses the soldier—on the lips. According to Miss Gish, ‘It was a dramatic and touching scene, during which audiences sat tense and quiet.’

The film was a financial failure and is now a lost film, as I discovered when I attempted to locate a clip of the above scene.

I’ve not read any D.W. Griffith scholarship, so I don’t know if film scholars and historians have explored this major change in oeuvre, though given Griffith’s monumental place in American film history I can’t imagine it’s been ignored. I wonder whether these scholars believe it was penance for the way Birth of a Nation was received or if they (somehow) believe it represented one part of a consistent philosophy.

And of course, this passage not only caught my eye because of the stark change in racial and gender dynamics in the three years between Birth of a Nation and The Greatest Thing in Life. (Perhaps it is not as stark a change as it might first seem, since it is an individual moment of racial reconciliation, which is always easier for white Americans to stomach than a wholesale transformation of a racist political system that Birth of a Nation both captured and strengthened.) I was also transfixed by the scene of two men kissing, on the lips, produced by a Hollywood director whose very name is a synonym for intolerance.

If that is not a complicated moment in history I don’t know what is.


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