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The D.W. Griffith Award

     It happened in December: without membership consultation, the Directors Guild of America's National Board decided to rename its annual D.W. Griffith Award because Griffith was the filmmaker of the racist The Birth of a Nation.

     Ridiculous! I penned a letter of protest which, with friendly amendments from Amy Taubin of The Village Voice and Armond White of The New York Press, was passed unanimously by the National Society of Film Critics at our Jaunary 8 meeting. The letter was sent in the National Society's name to the Guild, its text printed in the January 27 Variety:

     "The National Society of Film Critics deplores the rash decision by the Director's Guild of America's National Board to retire, and soon rename, the Guild's annual D.W. Griffith Award for distinct achievement in film direction. The recasting of this honor, which had been awarded appropriately in D.W. Griffith's name since 1953, is a depressing example of "political correctness" as an erasure, and rewriting of American film history, causing a grave disservice to the reputation of a pioneering American filmmaker.

     The DGA has rationalized its decision by asserting that Griffith 'helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.' But that description applies to The Birth of a Nation (1915), only one among Griffith's hundreds of films. The DGA should note that in a multifaceted career, Griffith also made such ambitious, hearfelt pleas for understanding as Broken Blossoms and, significantly, the monumental Intolerance.

     The early Russian filmmakers, who were Griffith's contemporaries, managed to look past the American director's conservative world view and champion his radical filmmaking. Surely, with 85 years passing since The Birth of a Nation, the DGA should possess similar wisdom: to continue to honor the American who virtually invented their profession of film director.

     The D.W. Griffith Award, as so named, should be kept in place. The DGA's National Board might spend its time on more significant business: as a watchdog pressuring the industry to improve on its shameful record of employment of minority filmmakers."

     What has been the fallout from the DGA membership? I have heard that veteran directors such as Andre de Toth and Curtis Harrington are incensed about the name change, but they have no clout. Martin Scorsese, who has lots of influence, is staying clear of making a statement, probably because he is already a cloudy presence (and he should be) for presenting that special career award to HUAC fink Elia Kazan at the 1999 Academy Awards.

     A filmmaker who has responded publically is The Last Picture Show's Peter Bogdanovich. He wrote a column in The New York Observer defending Griffith and even The Birth of a Nation.

     (I talked to Bogdanovich on the phone afterward, and eventually switched the topic away from Griffith to what Bogdanovich is doing with his own career. He's developing three scripts, the most arresting based on a play in which publisher William Randolph Hearst, the model for Citizen Kane, is accused of murdering silent movie director, William Ince. Bogdanovich recalled a conversation in which the late Orson Welles had told him that an early screenplay draft of Kane included a version of the Ince incident. Said Bogdanovich: "Orson said he took it out because he couldn't see Charlie Kane killing anybody.")

(February, 2000)


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