D.W. Griffith’s Interracial Same-Sex Kiss

Cross-posted from OutHistory.org

If there’s one thing I’ve learned studying history it is that the world is always more complicated than widely accepted narratives allow. The corollary to that is that social progress is not as smooth as popular culture would have our undergraduates believe. That was brought home to me recently when I started reading Donald Bogle’s history of African Americans in film. My copy of the 2001 edition had not arrived yet, so I read the first chapter in the 1994 edition and good thing I did, as there was an astounding paragraph about a moment of interracial same-sex intimacy in a D.W. Griffith film that had been cut from the subsequent edition.

In “Broken Blossoms,” a 1919 Griffith film, an interracial heterosexual kiss is so fraught it cannot occur.
In “Broken Blossoms,” a 1919 Griffith film, an interracial heterosexual kiss is so fraught it cannot occur.

If you know anything about US History, African American History, and/or film history, the name D.W. Griffith raises a very straightforward debate about racism in popular culture. Griffith was the filmmaker who directed Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, a film that is associated with the revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Rarely can we document a piece of culture’s direct impact, and yet this film led directly to a new KKK, one that dominated local governments around the country and terrorized people of color, Jews, and Catholics. The film was powerful in part because its feature-length cinematic portrayal of the “Dunning School” of Reconstruction History was so much more dramatically and technically sophisticated than previous films. I often show the chaotic scene in the South Carolina capitol to my history students, pausing on the slide that claims that this image is an exact reproduction of a photograph from that era of state governance, even including a citation to indicate its historical veracity. Talk about the way films shape our understanding of the past!

You can imagine my surprise, then, to come across this section in the 1994 third edition of Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), about another Griffith film released just three years after Birth of a Nation. This one, The Greatest Thing in Life (1918), was about The Great War in the very midst of that conflict. It was, Bogle writes,

a film so removed from the mainstream that it was hard to believe it was directed by one so much a part of the mainstream as D.W. Griffith. It represented a curious departure from the sentiments expressed in The Birth of a Nation. Released in 1918, its theme, says Lillian Gish [the actress who portrayed pure white womanhood in Birth of a Nation], was its director’s favorite—‘The brotherhood of man.’ In the climactic scene, a white racist Southern officer finds himself sharing a shell hole with a black private. At first there is great hostility. But war makes strange bedfellows—and evidently compatible ones. For when the white officer is hit by an enemy shell, the black soldier rescues him. In doing so, he saves the life of the officer but is critically wounded himself. Dying, he calls for his mother, requesting a last kiss. The injured officer grants that request. He pretends to be the black man’s mother and kisses the soldier—on the lips. According to Miss Gish, ‘It was a dramatic and touching scene, during which audiences sat tense and quiet.’

The film was a financial failure and is now a lost film, as I discovered when I attempted to locate a clip of the above scene.

I’ve not read any D.W. Griffith scholarship, so I don’t know if film scholars and historians have explored this major change in oeuvre, though given Griffith’s monumental place in American film history I can’t imagine it’s been ignored. I wonder whether these scholars believe it was penance for the way Birth of a Nation was received or if they (somehow) believe it represented one part of a consistent philosophy.

And of course, this passage not only caught my eye because of the stark change in racial and gender dynamics in the three years between Birth of a Nation and The Greatest Thing in Life. (Perhaps it is not as stark a change as it might first seem, since it is an individual moment of racial reconciliation, which is always easier for white Americans to stomach than a wholesale transformation of a racist political system that Birth of a Nation both captured and strengthened.) I was also transfixed by the scene of two men kissing, on the lips, produced by a Hollywood director whose very name is a synonym for intolerance.

If that is not a complicated moment in history I don’t know what is.

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Lauren Kientz Anderson

I am an Assistant Professor at Luther College in Decorah, IA. I graduated with a PhD from Michigan State University in 2010 and then had a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kentucky from 2010-2012. My research and teaching interests are Black thought in the interwar era, Black Internationalism, Black Women’s History, the global anti-apartheid movement, and LGBT history. My first book, “Speaking to the World: Black American Women and Global Interracialism, 1918-1939″ argues that “interracialism” was one of the most important political theories of race relations in the interwar era. It was based on the simplistic idea that if elites interacted, systemic racism, including violence and lynching ,would end. The rare scholars who discuss interracialism suggest that it was a white-led phenomenon, but the book focuses the discussion on black women’s support for and critique of interracialism. In addition to interracialism, the work analyzes black internationalism through these same black women. I assert that when black women engaged joyfully in religion and played with their identity abroad, they defied Michael O. West’s contention that the black international was defined by struggle. The work incorporates material from over twenty archives in the United States and Europe. You can explore aspects of my argument in my article, “A Nauseating Sentiment, a Magical Device, or a Real Insight? Interracialism at Fisk University in 1930.” I also have an article about my global anti-apartheid course in the Spring 2014 issue of Radical History Review and have several articles in various stages of the publication journey. For my course syllabi, the latest information about my publications, conference papers, and links to my posts from two years as a regular contributor to the Society for US Intellectual History’s blog see my academia profile. In my free time, I paint and do a bit of creative writing while attempting to balance my aged cat and laptop.

Comments on “D.W. Griffith’s Interracial Same-Sex Kiss

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    Thanks for such a thoughtful essay underscoring the complexity of all historical inquiry. I would really like to know why the story of the kiss was removed from later editions of “Toms…” (!)

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      Thank you for your comment!

      I would be curious to know why it was removed as well. Such an interesting choice. I’m finding Bogle to be a good reference, but I’m not sure I’d assign it again. The beginning of each chapter is a useful overview of black people in the films of that decade, but there are too many films and not enough depth on any one film. I’m glad I taught it this semester, though. We’ll see how the 2015 edition is.

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