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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.1 (2001) 50-78

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American Nationhood as Eugenic Romance

Susan Koshy

Far from proceeding . . . from ethnocentric scorn, the occultation takes the form of an hyperbolical admiration. We have not finished demonstrating the necessity of this pattern. Our century is not free from it; each time that ethnocentrism is precipitately and ostentatiously reversed, some effort silently hides behind all the spectacular effects to consolidate an inside and to draw from it some domestic benefit.

(Derrida 80)

The After-Birth of a Nation: Broken Blossoms and Racial Reconstructions

At the time of its release in 1919, D. W. Griffith's film Broken Blossoms was widely praised for its poetic beauty, its aesthetic innovations, and its liberal message of racial tolerance. The New York Times dubbed Broken Blossoms "a masterpiece in moving pictures," praising its pictures as surpassing "anything hitherto seen on the screen in beauty and dramatic force" (qtd. in Schickel 405). Shot in only eighteen days, at a total cost of seventy thousand dollars, Broken Blossoms went on to notch up seven hundred thousand dollars in profits, making less money than only two other Griffith films, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Way Down East (1920) (Schickel 405). More importantly, the nearly universal approbation received by Broken Blossoms was seen as marking a sharp break from Griffith's other major filmic treatment of miscegenation, The Birth of a Nation, in which his racist representation of blacks had provoked a storm of protests against the director. [End Page 50]

The riddle of Broken Blossoms is that it followed Birth quite quickly but seems, on the surface, so far removed from it. Had the director revoked his racist views, or had he always been, as Lillian Gish maintains, "incapable of prejudice against any group," finally making a film in 1919 that unambiguously reflected this liberalism (Gish with Pinchot 163)? The films were separated by a gap of four years, but although both dealt with miscegenation as the foundational metaphor of a new political future, Griffith's representation of miscegenation seems to have undergone a complete transformation over this period. Birth is based on Thomas Dixon's racist novel and its stage adaptation titled The Clansman. The film offers an epic "history" of the Civil War through a tale of two families, the Stonemans (Northerners) and the Camerons (Southerners), whose burgeoning friendship is destroyed by the Civil War only to be redeemed after the triumphant march of the Ku Klux Klan restores order to a South threatened by black anarchy. The political drama is allegorized as a sexual drama and embodied in the threatened rape of a Cameron and a Stoneman daughter by a black and a mulatto man. The Klan appears as a chivalric white brotherhood, an image of the reborn nation, riding to the rescue of white womanhood, a quasi-religious avenging force that castrates and kills the suspected black rapist and frees Elsie Stoneman from the clutches of the lecherous mulatto. As Michael Rogin elucidates, although white men were the primary agents of miscegenation in the South, Griffith's film erases the history of this desire and reinvents them as the saviors of a reunified nation. In Birth, miscegenation can only be envisaged as black rape and signifies anarchy and the imminent destruction of the nation projected as a family romance of whiteness.

By contrast, in Broken Blossoms, the miscegenous love of a Chinese shopkeeper for Lucy, a fifteen-year-old English girl, is enshrined as the purest of loves and vividly contrasted to the sadistic and incestuous desire of the white father for the girl. In a film in which the only other male lead, the father, is a melodramatic villain, the Chinese man, an idealistic dreamer, appears to be the hero of the story. Noting the conspicuous difference between Griffith's representations of blacks and other racial minorities like American Indians and Asians, some critics have sought explanations in his Southern roots. His biographer, Richard Schickel, traces Griffith's attitudes towards blacks to the "almost unconscious racism of his time...


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