In 1915, as film history books tell it, D.W. Griffith ran into serious trouble. The movie he released in February of that year, The Birth of a Nation, ended up causing riots in major cities across the U.S., and progressives and the NAACP fervently condemned what they deemed to be a racist portrayal of Reconstruction. In public, Griffith was indignant; in response to one negative editorial that deemed the film “depraved,” he publicly called the author “a liar and a coward.” Yet he was nevertheless stung by the criticism, and he privately sought to ensure his upcoming projects would quell the objections of his detractors.
It was in this charged context that Griffith released Broken Blossoms in 1919, a tale of a young white girl named Lucy (Lillian Gish) who falls in love with a Chinese man named Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) despite the disapproval of her raging, abusive father, a boxer named Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). When viewed today, what surprises you the most about Blossoms is that it’s in many ways just like The Birth of a Nation: technically proficient but morally repugnant. With regards to the former, Griffith certainly makes effective use of tinting; the London slums where Lucy lives are at first portrayed in a drab, colorless grey, but after she meets Cheng, everything outside Battling’s home becomes colored in either blue or pink. His cross-cutting, as it was in Intolerance, keeps you on the edge of your seat during the finale. And while he does insert a lot of intertitles, he still shows he knows how to use visuals to get his point across: in one particularly nice moment, he shows what a friend is telling Battling by briefly flashing us an image of Lucy in Cheng’s bed.
There are other admirable elements in the movie, such as the wonderful score (which adjusts to each character with an almost leitmotivic precision), the suffocatingly dense set design, and a sudden, rather scary close-up shot of the father’s angry, yelling face. Yet none of this can hide the fact that the story is extraordinarily demeaning. For now, put aside Lucy, who’s essentially a passive victim on which male saviors can carry out their crudest fantasies. The really egregious character is Cheng Huan, a “Yellow Man” whose overdone squinty-eye and hunched-back mannerisms make it all too obvious that the guy playing him is white. A “devoted Buddhist” in the most stereotypical sense of the phrase, he moves to London in order to spread “the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons” – a rather exceptional premise that not only results in cringeworthy scenes where he openly quotes Buddha’s teachings in the street but, when placed alongside the fact that he smokes opium in his free time and meekly wishes “good luck” to a missionary going to China, also serves as a convenient way of glossing over (and even indirectly sugarcoating) the West’s far more extensive, arrogant, and out-of-touch missionary/imperialist endeavors in the Far East. By the time you reach the scene in which Lucy openly calls Cheng a “Chinky” without any reaction from him, you feel as though Cheng would have been right at home in Jesse Watters’ infamous Chinatown segment: all that’s missing is for him to exclaim, “Happy Year of the Dragon, everybody!”
To be sure, all this backwardness may or may not affect your overall view of the movie; you can make the case, as did Roger Ebert, that it was “open-minded…in the context of its time” and thus deserves to be appreciated. What’s harder to get around, however, is the fact that Blossoms and The Birth of a Nation have received significantly divergent critical appraisals over the years, even though the latter really only differs from the former in the degrading extent of its prejudice because it doesn’t try to mask it with sanctimonious lectures on “the whip of unkind words and deeds.” Ebert, for example, gave Blossoms a spot in his first Great Movies book with little of the painstaking parsing of his later entry on Birth; America’s chief pioneer of the auteur theory, Andrew Sarris, called Birth “an embarrassment to film scholarship” but deemed Blossoms an “underrated masterpiece”; and the celebrated critic Jonathan Rosenbaum placed Blossoms on his “1000 Favorite Films” and “Alternate Top 100” lists, even though he’s excoriated Birth for “celebrating ethnic cleansing” and has otherwise regularly called out well-known race-related classics like To Kill a Mockingbird for being “gutless.” Griffith’s efforts paid off; the merely surface-level equality of this love story has nearly always given people just enough fodder to feel justified in dropping their squeamishness and embracing him as a “brave” (to quote Ebert again) promoter of liberal ideals – the sort of short-sightedness eerily reminiscent of the confidence with which people have used surface-level milestones like Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Act, and the election of Barack Obama as cause for claiming that racism no longer exists.
In that sense, Blossoms serves as an oblique reflection of just how willingly society overlooks racism’s deep roots. The likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, and others have always unhesitatingly pointed out that we easily latch onto token signs of progress to avoid full, honest confrontation, and the reaction to Blossoms’ phony, caricatural liberalism only serves as an unpleasant case in point. Moreover, in light of the way the media and Hollywood continue to stereotype Asians – #OscarsSoWhite didn’t stop Chris Rock from making that joke about Asian accountants, after all – you could even argue that the unwillingness of critics to really take the substance of Blossoms to task (all, remember, while simultaneously expressing great repugnance at the KKK segments in Birth) is just one symptom of a greater inability to give racism against Asians its due. For a view on why we remain stuck dealing with prejudice even now, then, look no further than here. Broken Blossoms reminds you just how necessary it is to reject surface-level measures in favor of emphasizing individual dignity, just how important it is to move past simple white-black dichotomies – and just how little society has done towards those ends even now.
Broken Blossoms (1919)
Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp
Running Time: 90 minutes
Written by: D.W. Griffith and Thomas Burke. Based on Burke’s 1916 short story “The Chink and the Child.”
Produced and Directed by: D.W. Griffith
The full movie (without the color tinting) is available on YouTube here.