- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2000

When the Directors Guild of America bestows its annual laurels tonight, Steven Spielberg will receive the guild's lifetime achievement award. Since its inception almost 50 years ago, this prestigious honor has been known as the D.W. Griffith Award, named for the Kentucky man born 125 years ago, who, to this day, is acknowledged to have been the greatest directorial visionary in Hollywood history. But Mr. Spielberg will not receive the D.W. Griffith Award this year, as such industry giants as Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, King Vidor, Frank Capra, William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, John Huston, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and Akira Kurosawa have before him. Instead, Mr. Spielberg will take home the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award, a prize newly named to meet Hollywood's strictest codes of political correctness.
This is not the first time movieland has stripped people's names from their honored places in motion picture history. Ten years ago, Lorimar quietly pulled down the name of Golden Age movie star Robert Taylor from the Robert Taylor Building on the old M-G-M lot in Culver City to punish the late screen idol for his 1947 appearance as a cooperative witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Now, the DGA has expunged the name of D.W. Griffith from its greatest prize because, as guild president Jack Shea says, he promoted "intolerable racial stereotypes" with his great and controversial epic of 1915, "The Birth of a Nation."
Running more than three hours long, this saga of the Civil War and Reconstruction has always been heralded for creating a new, visual vocabulary for storytelling with its remarkable scenes of the Civil War and convincing human drama. Even in 1915, however, the movie's depiction of defeated white Southerners being preyed upon by black mobs and white carpetbaggers, not to mention being rescued by the Ku Klux Klan, was incendiary stuff, sparking criticism around the country. Of course, it's worth noting, as film historian William Drew does in a recent issue of Heterodoxy, that D.W. Griffith's vision of the suffering of the old South in "The Birth of the Nation" coexisted with the horrific depictions of slavery in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which Mr. Drew calls "the most often filmed story in the silent era." Taking stock of the themes that emerge from the Griffith oeuvre (an astonishing 450 films), Mr. Drew points out that dramatizing the plight of Southerners during the devastating aftermath of the Civil War fits in neatly with D.W. Griffith's career-spanning interest in the consequences of defeat an interest, ironically, that inspired many movies infused with a surprisingly modern and quite liberal sensibility.
Whether championing the rights of American Indians in "The Redman's View" or highlighting urban poverty in "What Shall We Do With Old?" to lamenting the excesses of wealth of power in "A Corner in Wheat", or attacking the repression of women ("Way Down East"), D.W. Griffith could be, especially for his day, downright left-wing from time to time. Mr. Drew cites the brilliant and kind of crazy 1916 epic, "Intolerance" as an example: Combining four stories from four historical periods, the movie is anti-war, anti-capital punishment, and anti-capitalism.
Political content, however, is not the point when arguing against the DGA's decision to expunge Mr. Griffith's name from its award. It was D.W. Griffith's seminal artistic achievements, not his politics, that led to his eventual enshrinement in the industry he did so much to build. The fact is, as the noted critic Andrew Sarris once wrote, "The debt that all film-makers owe to D.W. Griffith defies calculation." Hollywood, however, in its ignorance and irresponsibility, has chosen to forget that debt. In so doing, it has surrendered something precious a rich artistic heritage to be in accord with the latest and shrillest political demands.

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