V’s Ten for Ten: #7 – “Broken Blossoms” (1919)

· Films & Video Games

Let’s talk about racism.

I’ve held for years that the most racist regular moviegoing audience isn’t actually anyone in the good ol’ You-Ess of A. It’s China.  The joke of it is that just about everyone knows that as well as I do, but that Americans, and elites in particular, don’t know what to do about it except to pretend like it’s white people’s fault.

The even funnier joke is seeing how our media tries to deal with it.  Asians in the press, Hollywood, and political discourse are treated as indigenous simpletons who were born with the skills to do brain surgery on themselves.  They are framed as white because they “steal” acceptances to colleges and graduate degrees from “non-whites.” But they are also framed as victimized minorities who grew up with the scars from being colonized by whites, wage enslaved in the railroad business, interned in World War II, burned by napalm and nukes; haunted and constantly pained by every atrocity and injustice that a white person might have committed against their ancestors in the past.  The fundamental paradox of woke racism in America is that the Asian is evil for existing, except when their pain can be politically appropriated.

When people are labeled and categorized this way, it’s no wonder why Chinese racism is at best ignored and at worst fed its indulgences through the skin games of Hollywood.  It’s also no wonder why a hashtag like #StopAsianHate pretends that the spikes and surges of violent street assaults and carjackings against Asians, overwhelmingly perpetrated by black males below the age of 40, are dismissed as the orange man’s doing.  Everyone knows that reality and media perception are in different continents across an ocean.

And now the joke reaches its zenith level.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s newest entry – in a shamelessly pandering move to Chinese audiences and championed by wokesters most eager to tell you how racist the second Indiana Jones movie is against Indian people – is… the one that features a racist caricature of an Indian person.

In Eternals, Kumail Nanjiani’s character has become the biggest star in Bollywood cinema.  When he is reunited with his eternal family, his bumbling, oafish cameraman inexplicably comes with him.  This side character has no purpose in the film except to be the Indian version of the wacky, hysterical black sidekick (a la Chris Tucker & Kevin Hart).  He waddles around obedient and smiling like a brown bobblehead.  The plot is not advanced by a single thing he does or says.  And then he and Nanjiani’s character are conspicuously absent from the final battle without explanation.  He is the avatar of the movie’s meandering mediocrity.  He is the mollifying stereotype of a race that Chinese critics and audiences relish mocking.

Contrary to what is fashionable to say, racism didn’t recently start getting filmed.  It was always filmed as long as there existed such a thing as film.  The history of racism against the Irish in America predates the advent of cinema, but it has been erased with a literal whitewash.  We take for granted today how instrumental cinema itself was to uplift, dignify, and assimilate the Irish.  As America emerged from the Great Depression, it did so with the public primed to recalibrate its prior prejudice against them.  Actor Barry Fitzgerald and Director John Ford (real name: Sean O’Feeney) made that happen, and the Irish became perhaps the driving force of cinema in the 1930s-50s – Spencer Tracey, Jimmy Cagney, Maureen O’Hara, Pat O’Brien, Gene Kelly, and, of course, John Wayne (real name: Marion Morrison).  In some ways, it’s the most important part of Ford’s legacy that no one talks about.  Perhaps it worked too well.  The Irish are all just privileged white oppressors now.

But before John Ford, there was D.W. Griffith.  A racist himself, tarred by the supposed better thinkers of today for his sins of the century past; Griffith is best and most infamously known for having created the 1915 landmark silent epic Birth of a Nation.  It is both one of the most magnificent pictures ever made, and also perhaps the most evil visual narrative ever constructed this side of the Atlantic Ocean.  It is known that the film garnered intense criticism and backlash even in 1915 for how crudely it portrayed blacks (and “crude” is an understatement) as well as how charitably it portrayed the Ku Klux Klan (the film is largely responsible for the Klan’s rebirth as a national movement after the original group fizzled out).  What isn’t as well known is the fact that Griffith spent the next several years attempting to fix his mistake.  In doing so, he created four of the greatest films of all time in five years.

One of those pictures made by that very racist holds up today as perhaps the perfect rebuke of Marvel’s racism.

Contrary to what my fiancé likes to tell people, I am not a collector of silent films.  I avoided them for decades because I am an impatient person.  I disguised my ignorance by attempting to be clever in pointing out that they’re not actually silent films.  They’re voiceless films.  But even after I learned about the great Buster Keaton, I genuinely believed that there was no story that could be told in the silent medium that couldn’t be told just as well if not better in films where people could talk and you could hear the sounds of objects, footsteps, traffic, and gunshots.

All of that changed with Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl.  I can only describe the effect it had on me by saying that it is a film, perhaps the only film, that I cannot imagine being anything other than silent.  If you could hear the character voices, it would cheapen the experience.  If the dialogue was given with anything other than title cards, it would lose all its memorability.  If you could hear the steps on the Limehouse streets, the pummeling in the ring, the sound of the axe against the door, or the crash of an object dropped to the floor that alerts the suspicious person downstairs, Broken Blossoms would be a trivial experience.

The fact that it is dated helps it because of how limited its world is, and how humans described and conceived of each other.  It is based on The Chink and the Child – a racist book by racist author Thomas Burke, who helped foster racist social sentiment against Chinese immigrants in England in the 1910s during the height of its anxieties during World War I.  When America began experiencing the same, in no small part due to the propaganda of G.G. Rupert, the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, and the xenophobia that is baked into the core of the American Progressive era and the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, it was Griffith who tried to counteract it with art by deliberately undermining that novel.

In other words, Broken Blossoms is not only one of the first cinematic adaptations of a book.  It is also one of the first (maybe THE first) to critique and defy the themes and spirit of the novel on which it was based.  And it’s also the first film in history to feature an interracial romance.

The story stars Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess – yes, he’s white; get over it), a Buddhist missionary looking to invade the white barbarians of Europe with preachings of peace who fails before he even arrives.  His failure leads to opium and a modest shopkeep in the impoverished slums of Limehouse, England.  That arc is already completed when he meets Lucy, the downtrodden daughter of Battling Burrows – an angry ape with human skin who cruelly abuses and neglects his daughter in between instant-knockout fights in the ring.  Burrows’s evil is first explained in the narration and then both humanized and even more exaggerated in the illustration.  Actor Donald Crisp doesn’t give him the meanest face.  Somehow that makes his character even meaner.

Lucy limps and wanders her way through town, encountering tired, bitter women who tell her not to get married and kindhearted prostitutes who tell her not to follow their footsteps either.  She arrives home only to be the victim of her father who has no one else on which to take out his aggression and powerlessness.  The close-up fake smile is first disturbing and then even more disturbing because of how funny and awkward it is.  But when she finally stumbles into Cheng’s shop, she smiles for real because of the happiness she has never before known.

Broken Blossoms invented the cinematic imagery of Romeo and Juliet in depicting the ill-fated romantic non-romance between Cheng and Lucy, and the scenes between them involve idyllic doting that you just don’t see in most movies.  Then it invented the axe to the door that Kubrick made popular in The Shining.  I am not going to tell you anything else about that scene, other than that it has a section to itself on Wikipedia, and if you haven’t seen the film, don’t look at that section until you do.  Cheng’s sensitive, delicate, and shy nature made him the least likely candidate for converting anyone to the ways of Buddha, but his touch and tenderness are exactly what Lucy deserves, and it is a reward when she receives it from him.

The only real problem I could identify with the film is the fact that Burrows (the film calls him “Battling”) is introduced to us in the opening title cards, but when we actually meet him enough time has passed and enough things have happened involving Cheng that it’s possible to forget entirely who he actually is.  It was only upon my second watch that I understood the intention of the opening.  Burrows is an exaggerated, oafish character and the film is entirely aware that he is the type to be dismissed as such by audiences.  But the message of the titles suggest that you might be more like him than you think unless at least some parts of your life are dedicated towards kindness done unto others.  The message is especially poignant in the aftermath of World War I – an era where just about everyone took a moment of pause at various points to examine the blood on their hands.  And Cheng’s kindness shown to Lucy is akin to the repair of a flower.

Lillian Gish was that flower, and no one else bloomed like she did.

The perfect antidote to the collective madness that began five years before it, and the perfect rebuke to the Chinese racism that Marvel employs in its films today; Broken Blossoms gives poetry and fulfillment in standing up for people of good will.  It is the perfect centurial time portal to counteract the vitriol with which partisan actors treat Asians today.

Not bad for an early 20th century racist.  A lot of 21st century racists would improve if they were more like him.

– Vivek

V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#2: “Battle Royale” (2000)
#3: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
#4: “Rope” (1948)
#5: “Malcolm X” (1992)
#6: “6 Underground” (2019)
#8: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
#9: “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)
#10: “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)


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