Intolerance (1916)

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I had the unfortunate experience of waiting in a barber shop where the barber and his customer in the barber’s chair were doing nothing but telling racist jokes and making ignorant evil comments about various people groups for a half hour. I wanted to just leave but spoke up instead. After the customer left, the barber, trying to make sure he got my business after all that, “apologized” by saying that all those old geezers are so bigoted it makes him sick, but of course he took no responsibility for his own bigotry but instead exposed that in addition to being racist, he’s also prejudiced against the elderly.

D.W. Griffith’s life and career surrounding the making of his 1916 film Intolerance is a very similar story. After the release of his notorious film The The Birth of a Nation, he was shocked to find that many American viewers found the film horrendously racist. He of course was making a movie based on the assumptions of history that he grew up with. If he recognized the blatant racism in those assumptions that are so clear in The Birth of a Nation, he was unwilling to ever admit it. Instead, he made Intolerance to prove that he’s not racist.

Note: Please be patient with me through a lot of negative before we get to the positive. I include this movie in my weekly reviews of masterpieces because I do believe it’s a masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean its flawless, and those flaws have to be waded through before we get to what makes it a masterpiece.

In Intolerance, Griffiths shows that he against oppression and intolerance and general, even though all of the victims of intolerance seen in the film are white (rather I should say the actors are white, since one of the victims is Jesus and several others are earlier Israelites, none of whom were white but of course the movie portrays them as white, not caring about historical accuracy any more than it cares about intolerance against non-white people). One of the four stories of intolerance is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. All blame for that intolerance is placed on the Pharisees, all but ignoring the Roman government responsible for carrying out the act. Throughout the four stories, there are several female characters, and none of them have names.  The married characters are known only by their last names, according to their husbands’ identity. The single characters are given very strange and sexist identifiers like Brown Eyes, The Dear Little One, and my personal favorite The Mountain Girl. So, just like that barber, D.W. Griffiths tried so hard to vindicate himself and prove that he isn’t racist, that he backfired and instead displayed many of his other prejudices to the world.

Roger Ebert referred to The Birth of a Nation as a great film that argues for evil. Ebert’s review of that film is perhaps more important to any serious film buff who respects the art of filmmaking more than the movie The Birth of a Nation itself is. I can’t deny his statement but where I depart from him is on my view of films that argue for evil. Can they be great technically? Yes, and The Birth of a Nation is. But that doesn’t mean that they have a story worth telling. The Birth of a Nation is a great film that argues for evil and was not worth being made. The full title of Intolerance is Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages. In this film, he argues for love. As I showed through the prejudices that come through so strongly, he doesn’t always do it well, but he still argues for love. Since he argues for love, regardless of how well he does it, he finds a story (actually four stories) worth telling.

With one modern story and three historical stories, Intolerance shifts back and forth between the four stories, the four different cultures, the four different time periods, and the four different groups of intolerant bigots and their victims. The movie seamlessly connects the four stories, showing how prejudicial thought and behavior is a sad, universal, timeless reality. The director’s own prejudices that are so evident in the movie actually make that point even more authentic and powerful. We can only hope that in the process of making the film, his prejudices became as obvious to him as they are to modern viewers. Watching this sad reality unfold through four different stories confronts us today to see where we fit in this world order of Intolerance: Love’s Struggle throughout the Ages.

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