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Filmmaker D.W. Griffith - best forgotten as KKK booster or memorialized as ground-breaking director?




Actors costumed in the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan ride on horses at night in a still from 'The Birth of a Nation,' the first-ever feature-length film, directed by D. W. Griffith, 1914.
Actors costumed in the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan ride on horses at night in a still from 'The Birth of a Nation,' the first-ever feature-length film, directed by D. W. Griffith, 1914.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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After the successful bid to tear down the Confederate flag from sites across the country, petitioners in LA want an iconic filmmaker's name, D.W. Griffith, scrubbed from an East LA school because of his 1915 epic that glorified the Civil War-era Ku Klux Klan.

Film critics are torn over the matter.

KPCC critic Tim Cogshell argues "Birth of a Nation" did not just spur a resurgence of the white supremacist group, but it also fell short of a being a great film. Still it was Hollywood's first blockbuster and broke new ground in its technique and style.

Wade Major, critic for IGN’s Digigods.com and KPCC, is loathe to revise history by removing Griffith's name. Major says concealing all evidence of the Confederacy and the Civil War ignores how the North and South came together after the war - honoring the dead on both sides.

After "Birth of a Nation," Griffith sought redemption with "Intolerance" - a film showing the damage and dangers of racial intolerance. By 1939, after Griffith's career had fizzled, Los Angeles school officials named the East L.A. school David Wark Griffith.

This controversy is similar to one that has dogged the 1939 epic, "Gone with the Wind." Some have called for the film to be excluded from the canon of American cinema for its derogatory depiction of blacks during the Civil War. Major protests, saying director David O. Selznick worked "in careful and close consultation with the NAACP(National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) precisely because he did not want to face the same outrage that greeted Birth of a Nation."

With files from Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Guests:

Tim Cogshell, Film Critic for KPCC and the Alt-Film Guide

Wade Major, film critic for KPCC and host for IGN’s DigiGods.com