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.