A Short Film of Social Justice From D.W. Griffith


I have recently been championing film studies/universities to focus more on Oscar Micheaux and less on D.W. Griffith. As I felt the former is as brilliant and talented and did not make a racist trash film like The Birth of a Nation.

But in order to feel I have a legit and informed opinion, I wanted to watch more films from each. And it struck me how much I loved this Griffith film and how much it played to my leftists socialist heart.

A Corner in Wheat shows the exploitation of the poor by the rich to their advantage. While the poor are out putting in long workdays and slaving over the fields, the rich are celebrating while throwing money around. (Yes, it’s extreme, but if you know Griffith, he plays in the extremes, at times for the better and at times for the worst).

Then this short does something beautiful and it punishes the rich. The film itself, like a god, comes down an administers a punishment. It’s as though the film is simply here to right the wrongs of injustice.

And it had me thinking about Griffith. How did someone who seems to have had such progressive politics then go on to direct one of the most heinously racist movies of all time six years later? A movie that restarted the KKK, contributed to riots around the country and led to the deaths of many people?

Did Griffith have a belief system? Was he one of those people whose beliefs were 100 miles wide and 6 inches deep? Or was he a director who could just mold to the source material?

Then it dawned that he wasn’t necessarily that much of an outlier and is very emblematic of the politics of racism that still permeate today. Very few people are for the rich. There was a time when conservatives were openly the people of the rich but soon learned to conceal it and repackage and act like they were too for the working man while passing trojan horsing draconian laws to benefited the ultra rich.

So the problem isn’t the cause but rather the solution. For someone like Griffith, even the belief that the rich are the problem can be easily reshaped into believing minorities are part of that system to hold you down. Much like poor whites believe the empathy extended to immigrants is detrimental to their prosperity. And as shown in The Birth of a Nation, it’s still poor whites being victimized by freed blacks who, somehow in Griffith’s paranoid world, immediately become the haves versus the white have-nots.

That is ultimately my problem with Birth of a Nation. Along with being racist it’s also dripping with dishonest victimization. Which brings us back to A Corner in Wheat. Could this movie be criticized for also being a case of victimization? Sure, but it’s an honest form that I feel history backs up.

But others may not feel the same. You may feel the rich have a raw deal in America. You may feel the victimization in The Birth of a Nation is just and A Corner in Wheat is fabricated. Or you may feel it’s just in both. In the end, things aren’t always binary and people are more complex than given credit for. Complex doesn’t necessarily mean intelligent, it just means your beliefs are harder to predict, even if some of that unpredictability is idiotic. (Sorry, I feel if you think The Birth of a Nation is just, you’re an idiot).

But in the end, I do love this film, regardless of my overall feelings toward Griffith. Because perception shapes viewing experiences, and my perception is that the rich have been exploitating the poor since the beginning, a statement that is not any less true regardless who it comes from.