Broken Blossoms and Ethnicity

For its time, Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl, served as a revolutionary silent film that played a role in advancing and promoting race relations in the United States.  The film was released in 1919 and was produced by D. W. Griffith, who also produced the notable silent film The Birth of a Nation (3). The most significant cast members include Lillian Gish, who plays 15-year-old Lucy, Richard Barthelmess, who plays The Yellow Man, and Donald Crisp, who plays the abusive Battling Burrows (4). The film is based off the book The Chink and the Child written by Thomas Burke (7).

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The film’s plot focuses on the relationship between Lucy and The Yellow Man, as she seeks refuge from Battling Burrow’s abuse. The Yellow Man was originally from China and chose to travel to London to “take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife” (3).  Upon arriving in London, he becomes addicted to opium and runs a shop in Lucy’s town. Lucy is the young, illegitimate child of the boxer, Battling Burrows. Lucy and her father have a very strained relationship, as he treats her like his servant and becomes very violent and aggressive towards Lucy after consuming alcohol. One day, when Lucy goes out shopping, she happens upon The Yellow Man’s shop. The Yellow Man takes special note of Lucy peering into his shop and develops an infatuation with her. Upon returning home, Lucy accidentally pours hot tea on Battling Burrows, which in turn send him into a fit of rage. In order to escape the abuse of his whip, Lucy seeks refuge at The Yellow Man’s shop. He acts as her caretaker and nurses her back to health, caring for her wounds and dressing her in a silk robe.

When a character in the film known as The Spying One, notices that Lucy is in The Yellow Man’s shop, he immediately alerts Battling Burrows, who grows extremely angry at the idea of his daughter with a “chink.” He barges into the store when The Yellow Man is gone and drags Lucy back home, severely abusing her upon their arrival. In one of the most pivotal and disturbing scenes of the film, Lucy escapes Burrows’ abuse by hiding in the closet. Burrows breaks down the door with an ax and throws her on the bed, whipping Lucy until she dies. After noticing that Lucy is no longer in his shop, The Yellow Man runs to her house but is too late. After finding her dead, The Yellow Man shoots and kills Battling Burrows. The Yellow Man then takes Lucy back to his house and carefully lays her at peace before killing himself next to her in solidarity.

After watching this film, I noticed that its main themes include child abuse, interracial relationships, and drug addiction. At the time of Broken Blossoms’ release, interracial marriage was illegal in the United States. D. W. Griffith’s portrayal of Lucy and The Yellow Man’s relationship was seen as brave and controversial at the time, as it was a taboo subject (6). However, Griffith never portrayed the two characters in a sexual light. Their displays of love and affection were very subtle, only kissing each other’s hands or putting their faces close together. This demonstrates that while this film worked to advance the idea of interracial relationships, Griffith chose not to cross into an overly dangerous territory by ensuring the characters refrained from any sexual acts. Overall, this production choice hints that at the time, American society was not yet ready to completely accept or witness depictions of an interracial couple.

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After noticing the film’s focus on race, I chose to analyze it through an ethnic lens while applying the academic theory of Orientalism. The film places a large emphasis on The Yellow Man as the “Other” in comparison to Lucy and Battling Burrows. Although “Orientalism” by Edward Said focuses on the treatment of Islamic people in the United States, the idea of a group of people being ostracized due to their ethnicity, race, or religion is an applicable theme in the film. Said mentions in the article that “the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty” in films and television (8). In parallel, the Yellow Man was also stereotyped throughout Broken Blossoms.   The Yellow Man was played by a white actor and portrayed as a peaceful Buddhist, an opium addict, and a shopkeeper, therefore playing into the common stereotypes of the Chinese people. He is also often referred to as a “chink” throughout the film. Robert Eger mentions in his article “There were many Asian actors in silent films, but only one played leading roles” (6). Therefore, I believe that a white actor was chosen in order to increase the film’s popularity, however in doing so, Griffith did nothing to increase diversity in Hollywood or reject the stigma of Chinese stereotypes. Overall, while Broken Blossoms attempts to showcase acceptance towards the Chinese people, it essentially plays into Orientalism by failing to use accuracy and political correctness in The Yellow Man’s portrayal.

At the time of the film’s release, the United States was not accepting of people with an Asian ethnicity. In 1917 an Immigration Act was passed that “restricted the immigration of ‘undesirables’ from other countries” and was enacted in order to “tighten the restrictions on those entering the country, especially from the area of Asia” (9). I believe that this film was ahead of its time, however, in that it challenged racial stereotypes right before the start of the roaring 20’s. In just a few years after Broken Blossoms release, the 1920s would inspire “the production of literature and art that could challenge racial stereotypes and quell racial segregation.” Overall, despite the film’s controversial subjects, it was very popular in the United States. It earned the title of an “acclaimed masterpiece” and grossed $700,000 in the United States (1). It was also widely distributed by United Artists (4). In 1996, Broken Blossoms was even selected to be in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (5).

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While Broken Blossoms does its best to serve as a critique of the treatment of ethnic minorities, today, it is obvious that it falls short of doing so successfully. While The Yellow Man is portrayed as a gentle, peace promoting man in comparison to the violent, abusive, white man, Battling Burrows, The Yellow Man’s character is still plagued with detrimental stereotypes (7). Overall, I believe that this film is telling of American culture’s struggle to accept immigrants and those categorized as “others.” This has been a common theme throughout the history of our country and is displayed prominently in this film’s attempts at highlighting racial acceptance.

Works Cited

  1. Balio, Tino. “Project MUSE – United Artists, Volume 1, 1919–1950.” Project MUSE – United Artists, Volume 1, 1919–1950. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.
  2. Broken Blossoms. Directed by D.W. Griffith, 1919.
  3. “Broken Blossoms (1919).” Filmsite Movie Review. Filmsite, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.
  4. “Broken Blossoms (1919).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.
  5. D’Ooge, Craig. “Mrs. Robinson Finds a Home Librarian of Congress Names 25 Films to Film Registry.” Mrs. Robinson Finds a Home (December 30, 1996) – Library of Congress Information Bulletin. Library of Congress, 30 Dec. 1996. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
  6. Ebert, Roger. “Broken Blossoms Movie Review & Film Summary (1919) | Roger Ebert.” N.p., 23 Jan. 2000. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
  7. Lesage, Julia. “Artful Racism and Artful Rape in Broken Blossoms.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Dec. 1981.
  8. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Print.
  9. Tucker, David, and Jessi Creller. “U.S. Immigration Legislation: 1917 Immigration Act.” U.S. Immigration Legislation: 1917 Immigration Act. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
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