Friday, February 17, 2006

Their Trust

Been soaking in D.W. Griffith's Biograph shorts from 1909-13, and you can see early on how unique his work was compared to other American filmmakers of the time. Each frame is carefully, studiously composed; the outdoors scenes are lush, interiors semi-claustrophobic. The actors are committed to their roles no matter how small. A table of diners far in the background engage each other as if they were the main characters in close-up. Griffith clearly demanded complete fidelity to every scene before him, and he received it in full. Plus, for me, there's the kick of watching people in what was a totally different world, flickering shadows from a long dead time. But there is one short that got me thinking about the present.

"His Trust," shot in 1911, shows a house slave's devotion to his plantation master's family. George is a white-haired, soft-smiling manservant, seemingly dignified compared to the leaping, clapping, dancing slaves around him. He's clearly his master's favorite; so when the master suits up in Confederate gray and is about to march off to fight the Northern aggressors, he asks George, in the event of his death, to watch over and take care of his wife and young daughter. George accepts with a solemn bow of his head, then joins the other slaves outside to praise the Confederate army as it goes forth to protect their hallowed way of life.

Of course, the master is immediately killed in battle, and after a messenger gives the new widow the bad news along with her husband's sword, George assumes his sworn responsibility, not only keeping the widow away from drunken, maraudering Union soldiers, who loot and torch the mansion, but rescuing the daughter from the flames, then running back into the house to retrieve the master's sword as well. Now homeless, the widow and her daughter are given George's humble shack to sleep in for the night. As for George, he goes outside, throws a blanket on the dirt, and lies down to sleep, beneficent smile on his face. Loyal to the end.

As I watched this unintentionally hilarious film (Griffith staged it as tragedy), I again realized that romantic notions of how the Darker Folk want to be just like their white superiors are nothing new. The symbolism put forward by Griffith is even more literal, given that all the slaves are played by white actors in blackface, thus making the slaves' "inner-whiteness" immediately apparent. But what really got me was how "His Trust" could be seen, with a few tweaks here and there, as a pre-invasion fantasy of how the Iraqis would hail and eagerly submit to their Anglo-American saviors.

The whites in Griffith's film take for granted the obedience of their Negro lessers, and they cannot begin to conceive that perhaps these indentured souls are filled with despair. Not that there are any hints of dissatisfaction -- Griffith's slaves are happiest when they are lowest, as shown in a scene where George tries to cheer up the daughter by letting her ride on his back as he crawls in circles, while two other slaves looking on clap, wave their hands and jump with appreciation (the girl's mother adds to the fun by pushing George even closer to the ground, which makes him smile).

What a fitting propaganda film "His Trust" would've made had it been shot in 2002, and imagine the accolades it might've garnered from neocon and war liberal alike. For when you boil down their loftiest claims from that time, you're left with a cartoon-like scenario as Griffith imagined it nearly a century ago. The idea that the invasion would provide fertile ground for resistance, corruption, torture, ethnic cleansing, religious and tribal death squads, or that the entire exercise itself had (and has) nothing to do with democracy or human rights, but rather with geopolitical and imperial concerns, wasn't expressed by those so hot for Iraq's "liberation." Instead, the natives were gonna sing and dance ahead of each advancing regiment, immediately recognizing the civilizing nature of their new overlords. At least in D.W. Griffith's world, the "slaves" could wipe away the burnt cork and return to their respective lives. In the war lovers' world, no such escape exists for those trapped inside it. The romantic drama they envisioned has become a long-running snuff film, their popcorn drenched in the actors' blood.