It’s amazing how much national ethos, and the technology that spreads it can shape perception of ourselves and those around us.
In college, one of the most stressful times of the semester was registration because it was a race to figure out which professors in which time slot to request. Outside the library near the tower, the staff set out tables with butcher paper on top and each class/professor was listed under their own heading. Students would meander by and write their reviews under the heading for each class. One of the classes which consistently ranked as favorite was history of narrative film. I’d have to say it’s on my list of top 3.
One of the eras the course covered was the primitive era of American film which ended in 1915 with the release of the first blockbuster narrative film, “Birth of a Nation” (B.O.A.N). The film was extremely controversial because it stereotyped African-Americans as villains. The director, D.W. Griffith was lambasted because the film came across as racist. When you watch it, it’s pretty clear that all of the African-American characters were one form of a negative stereotype or another. Some of the most vocal critics of Griffith attribute the invention of these stereotypes to him and cite B.O.A.N as the springboard for the continued use of these stereotypes in the media for many decades. But, Griffith actually took the history of the civil war and the reformation era from Ivy League text books and the stereotypes had existed previously in literature. When the film was screened at the White House, the president made a statement that praised the film (After the emergence of the controversy, the White House subsequently denied this saying that the president never screened the film at all). Griffith was lambasted so much that he made another film called “Intolerance”. He was a believer in free speech and opined that film was a great opportunity for working class Americans to engage in a dialogue about all sorts of issues. He called this new concept “the working man’s university”. In his view, anyone who disagreed with the perspective of another filmmaker should simply make his own film in order to join the dialogue; very post-modern. Griffith was a futurist; ahead of his time. He also was an aspiring writer who studied history on his own because he came from a poor family who never had the resources to send him to college. These two facts help explain why he was so adamant that this emerging artistic medium be used as a tool for dialogue; to educate those underserved citizens. When you consider the fact that there was no TV or newspaper access to a large portion of the population (those generally left out when new technology was rolled out across the nation; particularly rural residents), it makes even more sense.
Some of the more politically liberal critics demand that he be held to account for his error and be labeled a racist. It’s no wonder because we can see from this case study that stereotypes in the mass media can cause extreme hardships for those affected (reviewing this history and learning its lessons is the whole point of a formal education for professionals in the media production field). However, to say that the man was racist, may be a bit extreme. Griffith made another film called Broken Blossoms. In this film he created his protagonist, a Chinese man, a hero who tries to save a poor white girl from the clutches of her abusinve father. When he can’t get there in time, he shoots the father and carries the girls body back to his home where he blesses her over his shrine to Buddha and then takes his own life. The race of the protagonist (and that of the antagonist) is significant because in this era, discriminatory groups in the U.S. hated Chinese immigrants more than any other group including African-Americans. So, with this story, Griffith duly noted the previous feedback spurred by B.O.A.N. and responded in kind to clarify his original point which, in his mind, had nothing to do with race, rather more to do with manipulation of poor irrational individuals by powerful political groups; namely, supporters of the radical-reformation movement. The stereotyping was a regrettable side effect of telling a story that was historically accurate relative to the university level books legitimated by academia. In short, Griffith’s message was mis-interpreted. But this, too is significant because, in the end, the mis-interpretation contributed to riots, deaths and a surge in the membership of the KKK organization. As storytellers, this is the lesson that we learn from film history classes, a lesson that Griffith did not have the opportunity to learn due to the fact that he invented the language. This language is still used today and was even studied and adopted by filmmakers around the world as early as the 1920’s.
The reason this film was so damaging was because so many people saw it and Griffith was so damned good at his job, the audience related to the characters in a way that modern-day directors strive to duplicate (sans the stereotypes of course). This film was the first real occurrence of Mass Media (Before this film, the banking industry wasn’t heavily involved in the film industry….nor were government regimes for that matter). After B.O.A.N., that all changed because of the influence of the medium demonstrated by the visceral response from the public and because the film grossed (some estimates say) as much as 1 billion dollars in today’s currency values. The man seems to have had a significant role in the emergence of the phenomena of mass media. How could he have predicted the negative effects of storytelling? The caustic criticism today is excessive since hindsight is 20/20. Errors like this are much more egregious when it happens in the 21st century because we have 100 years of history at our disposal, used to hone our professional sensibilities. Given the biases in the news these days, this error probably happens often but doesn’t get noticed because only a few people see it. If the circulation is low then it doesn’t really have much impact on society, but in 2012, during the Olympics, Brian Williams anchored a report from the British Royal Palace about how stupid Texans are. That was the whole message behind the report….aired during the Olympics; an event that surely fits into the “mass audience” category. Having traveled around the U.S. since I was a kid and meeting quite a few American transplants here in Texas, I can tell you that this attitude towards Texans is nothing new. I’m sure that this report made things worse. I wonder if this seemed like a good idea because Williams dropped out of school and never formally studied the history of media, journalism and the effects of stereotyping people. At any rate, it’s interesting to note that with these highly influential historical figures, who made the same error, both skipped the formal education before becoming professionals working at the highest levels of their respective industries.
It’s also interesting to note that every time I’ve encountered this attitude personally, (I can’t even count the number of times) it’s been from Americans. I attended the largest U.S. University (over 50,000 students) and we had quite a large number of foreign students. One day my Asian friend (In Asia, western media has low exposure) approached me and asked what the “others” we’re talking about when they made comment about my accent. I said, “what do you mean? I do have an accent”. She was taken aback by this. With surprise she said, “really? I had no idea”.