Silent Film Melodrama, Race, and the Oppression of Missionary Idealism: "Broken Blossoms" (1919) and "The Color Purple" (1985)
Both Steven Spielberg's rendition of Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple" and the 1919 silent film directed by D.W. Griffith entitled "Broken Blossoms" function as melodramas of racial misunderstandings. This silent film tells the story of an opium-addicted Chinese man who fosters an illegitimate Cockney waif, played by Lillian Gish. The young woman is abused and ultimately killed by her brutish, prize-fighting father, the "Battling Bruiser." "The Color Purple" tells the tale of another abused young woman, the girl Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg. Celie is raped by her father, and then, when she becomes incestuously pregnant, has her baby ripped from her arms and is passed along to a man named Mister, who also abuses her and forces her to take care of his existing children from his first marriage.
Like the ethereal Lucy, in the contemporary melodrama of "The Color Purple," Celie is also abused by a cruel society, and tormented, debased and ignored by the father who should love and protect her, rather than ostracize her. Also like Celie, the film has a theme of hidden and forbidden love between outsiders. Shug, the singer and marginalized saloon singer beloved by Mister, becomes Celie's lover and awakens the woman to her own sense of sexuality, rather than a sexuality purely deployed for the pleasure of men. "Broken Blossoms" makes use of a more delicate and refined implication of sexuality, but it too makes use of the theme of forbidden love between outsiders, namely that of the relationship between a Chinese man and a White girl. The implication of "Broken Blossoms" is that poor Lucy is so bereft, that even a relationship between an Asian man and a White girl is better than what Lucy currently and cruelly suffers at the hands of her own father.
The films use physical threats, rather than societal threats to highlight the conflicts of the main characters. For example, fighting as a boxing match becomes a theme in both films. The subplot between Sophia and Celie's stepson Harpo becomes a continuing battle of gendered fisticuffs and fighting -- Sophia will hit Harpo with her own fists rather than allow herself to be subject to physical abuse, unlike Celie. In fact Celie, because of her own life, first encourages Harpo to beat Sophia, something that Sophia reproaches Celie for, saying that it will be the death of Harpo if he attempts to do such a thing again.
D.W. Griffith's film, however, for all of its audacity at the time, has also come into criticism for its racial implications by some viewers, who bridle at the fact that one of the most prominent Chinese characters, for example, is called "The Yellow Man" and was played by Richard Barthelmess, a Caucasian actor. Likewise, "The Color Purple" was criticized for its portrayal of apparently saintly Black women who were abused by Black men. Although the brutishness of men such as Celie's father and Mister, played by Danny Glover, might be put into a larger, oppressive white societal context, a context that actively imprisons Sophia because of her willingness to strike out to defend her rights, this does not entirely excuse the moral imbalance between men and women, both oppressed by Whites, in a White Southern world, some might argue.
The melodramatic films thus tend to blame individuals, rather than society for the blows wielded against the oppressed. D.W. Griffith's film takes a particularly idealistic view of 'the other' in the form of 'the Chinese,' as Spielberg's film does of Black women. The silent film begins as a Buddhist acolyte known only as the Yellow Man, contemplates a mission to England: "The Yellow Man in the Temple of Buddha, before his contemplated journey to a foreign land," and receives, according to the subtitles, "Advice for a young man's conduct in the world - word for word such as a fond parent or guardian of our own land would give," from a pacifist Buddhist monk. Like Spielberg's epic, the film has a missionary spirit -- and Spielberg's even has a parallel missionary narrative. The Yellow Man comes to spread the word of Buddhist pacifism to the warring sailors of Britain. Likewise, Celie's missionary sister marries a priest and goes to Africa, where she hopes to spread the Christian gospel.
But both missionaries, seeking truth, are thwarted. Because of Mister's cruelty, Celie is prohibited from writing to her sister, and Mister confiscates her sister's letters from Celie. Likewise, the Yellow Man's idealistic dreams crumble into dust in the reality of the waterfront of England. Like the talented Black female singer Shug Avery, the Yellow Man takes refuge in alcohol and drug abuse after becoming disillusioned with the failure of his Buddhist mission " The Yellow Man's youthful dreams come to wreck against the sordid realities of life...Broken bits of his life in his new home," reads the subtitles, noting that the man becomes a common shopkeeper, as Celie's husband becomes a saloon keeper, as a way of buoying his own broken spirits and income -- fueling the sort of behavior the Yellow Man wished to root out, or in the case of Celie's husband, fueling the sort of stereotypes commonly wielded against black men, namely that they were lawless and drunkards.
Lucy and her father, the Battling Burrows live in the same sordid Lime house district, as the Yellow man, living by the violent dockside. "Fifteen years before one of the Battler's girls thrust into his arms a bundle of white rags - So Lucy came to Lime house." Lucy's father takes out his rage at losing a fight on the body of his poor daughter. Thus, both the outcasts of the Yellow Man and Lucy are used as punching bags, or scapegoats for the marginalized. They are, like Celie and Shug and Sophia, the ultimate outcasts -- they are the outcasts whose bodies form the vehicles and mediums of rage of other outcasts. Other women, ironically, warn Lucy not to get married or to sell her body, but these warnings ring hollow as her body is already used and abused by her father, whom she must serve like a slave.
And ironically, Celie becomes a mother to others, even while her own early pregnancy and birth renders her sterile. Lucy, much like Celie, who alone knows how to cook well, take care of children, and make tasty meals for Mister, Lucy becomes the only motherly influence in her terrible home, even while she is denied security, warmth, and pleasure, which should be her 'due' as the mother figure. Lucy alone in the perverse world she lives, can mother others, just as Shug Avery rejects Mister's burnt pancakes and coffee, but greedily eats the perfectly prepared meals that Celie makes, because Celie has been a burden-bearer her entire life, and is accustomed, unlike Mister, to nurturing other men and women. Likewise, the Yellow Man pines for the beauty of Lucy, as Celie pines after Shug's beauty, as the one vestige of beauty in his otherwise miserable life.
The similarities between these two films show how melodrama, by rendering the 'other' such as a Chinese man or a Black woman, as a figure of pathos, can make such poverty acceptable to a mainstream audience. Melodrama today is often used a pejorative term, reminiscent of early vaudeville. D.W. Griffith, in the early days of cinema, was certainly influenced by the melodramatic style and emotional tenor, pitting good against evil, in his depiction of the central characters of "Broken Blossoms." But Melodrama in its meaning is not necessarily bad. The term merely means a combination of drama and music, or a "play with music." Only later has it come to mean a form…