By Charlene Flournoy
The film Broken Blossoms, short for Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl, premiered in 1919 and was produced and directed by D.W. Griffith. While Griffith wrote the script, most of the story was based off of the novel “The Chink and the Child” written by Thomas Burke. It stars actress Lillian Gish as “the Girl.” She also appeared in many of Griffith’s popular films including the box office hit The Birth of a Nation which was met with much controversy. The film also features Richard Barthelmess as “the Yellow Man” and Donald Crisp as Battling Burrows. D.W. Griffith faced a great amount of criticism after the release of Birth of a Nation due to its overt racism. That being said, Broken Blossoms not only defies racial stereotypes especially of the time, but it also portrays masculinity in a negative light. While it did not do as well as The Birth of a Nation in terms of popularity at the box office, Broken Blossoms was surprisingly profitable and tops the charts in terms of Griffith’s most successful films.
When Broken Blossoms premiered in 1919, xenophobia plagued the west. The Boxer Rebellion in the early 1900’s reinforced the Asian stereotypes to westernized countries thus catalyzing a reaction of an anti-Asian feeling throughout the United States. The release of this film challenged stereotypes, but also reinforced them to some extent. The film opens in China where the Yellow Man has high hopes to spread peaceful Buddhism in the Western world after breaking up a fight between two Navy men. Shortly after arriving in London, the Yellow Man struggles to make his dreams a reality, and the rest of the film takes place some years later where he is an opium addicted shop owner and is referred to as “Chink” by people in the town. A second plotline develops of the Girl, who is crippled and weak due to the beatings she receives from her drunk, angry father. She is the unfortunate target of his unforgiving whip. “When not serving as a punching bag to relieve the Battler’s feelings, the bruised little body may be seen creeping around the docks of Limehouse” (Griffith, 1919). This is where the Yellow Man spots her, and has presumably been watching her for some time. After one particular terrible beating from her father, the Girl wanders into the Yellow Man’s storefront where he takes her in and cares for her. The two fall in love, and when Burrows learns of this relationship he kidnaps the girl, takes her home and beats her to death only to be fatally shot by the Yellow Man who then immediately kills himself.
While Griffith’s intention might to be to defy racism, I see a reinforcement of negative characteristics associated with Asian people. The Yellow Man, while he is the hero of the story, is portrayed as weak and defenseless when he is knocked on the ground in the midst of the scuffle between the two Navy men. Also, his home is described as “fit for a princess” i.e. feminine and thus weak. Griffith also seems to paint him as a fool for coming to the Western world expecting to make a change with his peaceful religion. This reinforces some theories of Orientalism where “The Oriental is given as fixed, stable, in need of investigation, in need of knowledge about himself” (Said, 308). They way people at that time viewed Chinese is analogous to the way we view Arabs today as Said describes in “Orietnlism.” This view is reinforced by media, and in the early 1900’s film was just beginning to take off as a major source of media consumption. Additionally, it’s hard to ignore that the Yellow Man is played by a white man who squints his eyes and wears a rubber band around his forehead to pull back his eyebrows. Also, he is referred to exclusively as “the Yellow Man” or “Chink,” even said in an endearing way by the Girl. This implies that the terms used were socially acceptable.
On the other side of the coin, we see an interracial relationship develop in the film where the Yellow Man’s intentions are nothing short of innocent and kind toward a weak white woman. His character contrasts that of Battling Burrows, who is masculine to a fault. Burrows’ short temper and fight-ready stature is seen as monstrous and evil. After all, he is beating his defenseless daughter while inebriated. One of the most powerful scenes involves the white man, Burrows, shouting and condemning foreigners as he comes to drag his daughter away. The emotional nature of this scene tugs at the heartstrings of the audience who sympathize with the nice Yellow Man who heroically saved the Girl. This is a sharp contrast to most media depictions of white people vs. oriental people at that time. The White man is the evil vicious one and the Asian man is the hero for a change. That does not change the fact that this film is still racist in it’s own right, but relative to the time, the well-tempered and loving nature of a non-white character was revolutionary and is one of the reasons that the film was inducted into the National Film Registry and still celebrated today.
Broken Blossoms. Dir. D. W. Griffith. Kino Lorber Edu, 1919. Film.<http://sdsu.kanopystreaming.com.libproxy.sdsu.edu/video/broken-blossoms>
“Broken Blossoms (1919).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0009968/>
History.com Staff. “Boxer Rebellion.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. <http://www.history.com/topics/boxer-rebellion>
“The Birth of a Nation (2016).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4196450/>.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage , 2004. Print.