March 2012

His Trust

Directed by D. W. Griffith

Central Question: What might a 1911 film have foretold about the future of interracial love in America?
Filming location: Fort Lee, New Jersey; Method of the colonel’s death during the Civil War battle scene: hail of bullets; Amount of screen time between the colonel’s death and the looting of his estate by Yankees: about three minutes; Representative dialogue: none; Average number of shots per one thousand feet of film for Griffith-directed films in 1911: 71.4; Number of films starring Wilfred Lucas: approximately 375; Griffith’s response when asked in 1930 whether he felt The Birth of a Nation was true: “Yes, I think it’s true. But as Pontius Pilate said, ‘Truth? What is the truth?’”

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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—Nicholas Rombes

Nicholas Rombes, an English professor at the University of Detroit, Mercy, is the author of Cinema in the Digital Age and Ramones, from Continuum’s 331?3 series. His work has appeared in the Oxford American, the Rumpus, Wigleaf, and Filmmaker magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor.

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