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PBS Spotlights Pioneer Filmmaker

`American Masters' finds genius and racism in D.W. Griffith

AMERICAN culture is not homogeneous. It is rich, varied, and vigorous - and it goes right on producing genius.

The "American Masters" series on PBS, now in its seventh season, documents 20th-century creativity with a tenacious creativity of its own. Taking on individual artists rather than movements, it has provided a broad-based vision of American artistry in jazz, classical, and pop music, as well as dance, literature, theater, film, visual arts, and television - with occasional forays into science.

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A recent series of profiles of American filmmakers captures technical advances along with the spirit of the filmmakers' work. They are all excellent, but among these is a real gem of a documentary that will reintroduce viewers to the power of cinema and the technical and artistic achievement of its first great director.

"D.W. Griffith: Father of Film" (PBS, Wed., March 24, 8 p.m. - check local listings) is a riveting three hours of history - a balanced and lively portrait of the man who virtually invented the grammar of motion-picture storytelling as it is still practiced today. What Griffith didn't invent, he improved on. He borrowed tricks of the trade and lifted them to the level of artistic achievement.

But genius or not, Griffith was a flawed individual, and the film does not shirk its responsibility to deal with the gravest of these flaws. Griffith made arguably the single most controversial film of all time, "Birth of a Nation" (1915). Seeing it again after many years, I found it just as shocking as the first time. He devised many of the worst cinematic stereotypes about African-Americans ever foisted on the American public. Though he indicates his affection for the "happy" slaves of yesteryear, the blacks of Reconstruction times he pictures as venal, cruel, bloodthirsty, and lecherous. The Ku Klux Klan and its leaders are pictured as heroes.

One witness who was a child when the film came out in 1915 spoke of seeing the film in an all-black theater. Men and women wept and gasped at the dreadful images of their race. The film sparked picketing by African-Americans at many theaters. Denunciations came from religious leaders. Race riots broke out in many cities, the film was used by the Klan to recruit new members, and the film did incalculable damage to blacks and to race relations.

Yet "Birth of a Nation" was also a brilliant work of cinema. When it wasn't the basest kind of propaganda about the South, it created a thrilling fantasy of history, including the Civil War, a riveting tale of brave men and women facing hard times and great odds. Its technical achievement included parallel editing: two distinctly different sets of action cut together to indicate simultaneous scenes that often led up to a particular climax - and the elegant combination of fabulous spectacle with intimate moments. "Birth of a Nation" also demonstrated for the first time the uncontestable power of the cinema: It could cause riots and move millions of people with the same tale about a struggling family.

Griffith was surprised by the reaction to "Birth of a Nation," but unrepentant. Even in his exquisite "Broken Blossoms" (1919), about the pure love of a Chinese storekeeper for a beautiful young white girl, he resolves the platonic affection by killing them both off. Still, "Broken Blossoms," starring the ever-innocent Lillian Gish, presented so vivid and horrifying a vision of child abuse that it shook the nation and its own maker.

"Father of Film" is beautifully made: One never feels wearied by talking heads, still photos, or documents. Though most of Griffith's best work was made during the silent era, it is continually grounded in the drama of the filmmaker's developing craft. And the witnesses who remember him are themselves interesting, articulate people.

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Though the 70 documentaries of "American Masters" are, by and large, fairly uncritical in approach, there is good reason for the stance taken toward their subjects. The producers and directors are apparently more interested in uncovering the con- ditions that influence artists than they are in personality quirks or even in critical evaluation. What I have seen of the series convinces me that "American Masters" is succeeding.

Filmmakers Kevin Brownlow and David Gill retain a rigorous balance about Griffith - exposing his weaknesses, as necessary, or offering relevant detail about his life (including his racism, drinking, and womanizing), but only as it influenced his work and his life. The narrative never descends to mere gossip.

The series has won an Emmy for "best documentary" every year it has been on the air. The films take a long time to make.

"What I wanted to do, really, was to make wonderful, entertaining televison," says Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of the series. "And the other was to create a library of our 20th-century cultural heritage and to make films about people who have really had an impact on our sensibility in a pretty significant way."

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