If you take a class in college about film history, film techniques, representations of African-Americans in culture or a race relations course, than you have probably heard of D.W. Griffith. He made one of the most blatantly racist films of all time, Birth of a Nation, that nonetheless had an incredible impact on film technology and evolution. Over three hours in length (itself a unique thing in 1915), the film details the rise of the KKK after the Civil War and features the world’s first tracking shot, close-ups, and several other techniques that are still used today. The film also represents the birth of modern American cinema. The film is not just essential viewing for the purely technical aspects but also for the insane controversy it generated. Banned in several cities after being deemed as racist and propaganda for the Ku Klux Klan, it helped resurrect the long dead KKK, inspired many black people to make films in response and branded Griffith as a racist for the rest of his life. He hated this label and decided to direct a film in response to these accusations. That film is just as grand as Birth of the Nation and features many stories that shows how damaging intolerance to other people’s ideas and life can be to the people involved. The film entitled quite succinctly as Intolerance did not do near as well as his previous film and did not prove anything about his non racist tendencies (in fact he avoided portraying anyone of a different color other than white) but also tacked on the label of sexist. So overtly sexist that it kind of angers me to think of this film.
The several stories include a modern story (this is the one that angers me the most I think) involving a young woman whose father is laid off from a plant. He then tries to make money in several other ways, but dies without realizing any success. A co-worker of his in the plant then courts this girl and makes an honest woman out of her. However in desperation he had joined a gang and when trying to get out they planted a gun on him and he is sent to jail for several years. In this time, the young girl has a baby and is practically destitute, not able to take care of her child and she is amazingly young. This group of older women who as the film details are not pretty enough to have a husband to occupy their time and have too much money form a group that tries to reform prostitutes and take women’s babies away from them if they are deemed unfit to be a mother. This is where I get angry. Griffith posits in this particular story that if we didn’t have these awful women meddling in things they shouldn’t be meddling and instead had children and husbands of their own than nothing bad would have ever happened to this young woman. Never mind the fact she can’t feed her baby, take care of it in any way, that her husband is in jail, and that she is spectaturily young (the fact that many women had babies in their teens and that was acceptable back then and almost expected still surprises me to this day) doesn’t mean anything other than she is a saint. I know that this is a film blog and I should be reviewing the film, but I have to say one thing and that is there were real groups like the one portrayed here that existed at the time and they in fact were extremely helpful to women that were in the same situation that this woman was, giving them temporary housing, food assistance and advice on how to care for a child. They also didn’t just jail prostitutes like it suggest in the film or disapprove of alcohol because they didn’t want men to have any fun, but they tried to rehabilitate prostitutes that came to them and disapproved of alcohol as being one of the main indicators of domestic violence at the time. It pisses me off that men portray organizations that helped women believe in themselves and sustain themselves as the most evil organizations ever.
Now to get back to the story. There are other stories that happened at different points of history. One is about Babylon and the end of its empire, another being about Jesus, and the last being about the French Catholics’ intolerance of Calvinism. Now while some of these stories clearly show and imply intolerance of one’s views the one story that doesn’t overtly involve intolerance is the one that is most highlighted. That would be the end of the Babylonian empire. It is mostly just about war which may be an instrument of intolerance, but in this case is just used as an instrument of conquering land and riches. It is irrelevant to the themes and ideas Griffith wants to make obvious. It was no surprise to me when I read after watching the film that he spent the most money on this set. In fact if he would have just stripped everything else way from the film including the modern story, the french and jesus story and the cradle that kept rocking and just had this story, my review would be different. I rather enjoyed this era. He played to his strengths with this story, something that he didn’t do in the other ones
There are specific scenes, shots and moments in the film that I liked quite a bit, but I still don’t think that I can recommend this film except if you are interested in the historical significance of D.W. Griffith. Then you probably would have watched this film without reading this. I wish I could go back to when Griffith was alive, slap him in the face and call him one of the most racist, sexist men of all time. If you don’t believe me watch Birth, this film and then Broken Blossoms and then come back to me and try to defend him. You will find that you cannot.