In 1915, D. W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation, and spent the rest of his life trying to prove he wasn’t racist. The passage of time allows us to view Griffith’s racism from a distance that we don’t have with contemporary white liberal filmmakers. He honestly seemed to believe that Birth of a Nation – in which the Ku Klux Klan saves a white woman from being raped by a man in blackface – wasn’t racist. To prove his point, he made Intolerancein 1916 and Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl in 1919.
Broken Blossoms seems to be a genuine attempt to show sympathy for Chinese immigrants. Cheng Haun, played by Richard Barthelmess, is a peaceful man who rescues Lillian Gish from her abusive father.
Unfortunately, Griffith was too blind to his own prejudice to realize that his use of condescending stereotypes and “yellowface” actor might be offensive.
Richard Brookhiser popularized the term “numinous negro” in a National Review article in 2001. Brookhiser and other commentators describe the “numinous negro” as a black person who is treated as “spiritually elevated” and saintly by white people. He or she is de-Africanized, feminized and made “safe.” The character is portrayed as a selfless, uncomplaining servant who exists for the purpose of helping the white character and promoting racial harmony. He asks for nothing in return from the main, white protagonist.
Nearly all of which applies to Huan, in Broken Blossoms. He is not de-Chineseized, but his ethnicity is exoticized instead. As Roger Ebert notes, Huan is totally de-sexualized.
And in “Broken Blossoms” he told perhaps the first interracial love story in the movies–even though, to be sure, it’s an idealized love with no touching.
In our pop culture history, D. W. Griffith is the iconic example of the defensive, failing reaction that white Americans often give when accused of racism.
Even if you’re not interesting in studying stereotypes, Broken Blossoms might still be worth seeing. It’s a classic of melodrama and Lillian Gish gives perhaps the best silent performances by an actress I’ve seen. Her smile will break your heart.