Directed by D. W. Griffith
The 1915 film The Birth of a Nation is the wellspring of D. W. Griffith’s fame and infamy, a movie that is both technically pioneering and stinkingly racist, even for its own time. But Griffith made hundreds of other films, including a handful that are remarkably open and fluid in their racial sensibility. His Trust, a short from 1911, is a particularly magnificent example of how Griffith’s films sometimes worked against racial ignorance in bold and evocative ways, even as they seemed to reinforce it.
The film, set during the Civil War, focuses on George, a slave who rescues and shelters the wife and daughter of his master, who had died in battle against the Yankees. On one level, it is a compendium of early twentieth-century black stereotypes, most notably the ridiculous “happy Negro” (played in blackface by the Canadian actor Wilfred Lucas) whose loyalty is strongest to the people who oppress him. Yet in moments of unexpected tenderness between George and the colonel’s widow (Claire McDowell), His Trust somehow manages to undermine its own prejudices.
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