* Re "Debating an Icon's Genius, Racism," Feb. 1: Critics of the Directors Guild of America's excellent decision to remove D.W. Griffith's name from their most prestigious award show little understanding of the central role Griffith's classic, "Birth of a Nation" (1915), played in exacerbating race hatred in this nation. Griffith would not allow any black male actor to touch a white actress, so most of the "blacks" in the film are played by white men in blackface.
He quoted then-President Woodrow Wilson's own words in the inter-titles to support the film's contention that blacks should never have been given political power after the Civil War. Wilson, who was a friend of the novelist Thomas Dixon, on whose novel, "The Clansman," the film is based, officially segregated the federal bureaucracy for the first time.
The film was probably the single most watched film in U.S. history. By some estimates, at least 200 million people saw it by the 1930s, when it was still frequently shown. The film served to teach those countless millions, including the new immigrants from Europe, that this was a "white man's country"--the unmistakable message of the film. The film led directly to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, which established itself in northern cities from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Film scholars frequently try to separate Griffith's filmmaking achievements--which are unmistakable--from this gigantic legacy of deliberate racism. Griffith was intent on imposing a white supremacist creed on the United States, and he largely succeeded.
I show "Birth of a Nation" every year in my history classes at USC, and I disagree entirely with many who have tried to prevent colleges from showing the film. This is not about censorship or political correctness, but about reckoning with a Faustian master who drove the medium of movies toward literally murderous results.
The Directors Guild must stand fast to its decision to remove Griffith's name from its Lifetime Achievement Award.
PHILIP J. ETHINGTON
Associate Prof. of History, USC
* Eighty-five years ago Griffith made a film that contained racist scenes derived from the prejudice and misinformation of his Southern upbringing. In today's suffocating climate of political correctness there are those in Hollywood who will not let this decrepit controversy die. Griffith, both the man and the pioneering filmmaker, suffered 30 years for his errant ways.
After all, Griffith was largely forgotten by 1948 when he died. Few persons came to see him when he lay in state in the neoclassical building across from Grauman's Chinese Theater.
By renaming its life achievement award, the Directors Guild has seen fit to remove the last vestige of the father of American cinema from Hollywood.
* The real issue here is not art, cinematic genius or even racism. The real issue here is about the many deaths Griffith and "The Birth of a Nation" have left as a legacy, by encouraging hatred against an already victimized and marginalized people.
I am saddened and quite frankly ashamed by those on both sides of this issue, for pretending they have an argument while ignoring the most important consequence of this film: death of innocent people for nothing other than their skin color.
VAN W. GALLOWAY