I still can't really wrap my head around the insanity that is Broken Blossoms. I Googled reviews of the film and saw that Roger Ebert said this film "helped nudge a xenophobic nation toward racial tolerance." Excuse me? This film only opened the doors to the Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan and (much much later) Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon! If there was any nudging at all, it was a shove for Hollywood to monopolize yellowface and the portrayals of Asians for the next 70 years.
I wonder about the critical and public reception over Broken Blossoms as well. The novel that the movie was based on (The Chink and the Child) was actually banned from a lot of libraries based on the "scandalous" interracial relationships between the "Oriental" and the white girl, also when the presence of the Chinese (or any Asian for that matter) was hated and considered a pestilence. However, the critical reception of Burke's book was quite positive, despite the controversial subject matter.
Everything I've found that talks about critical reception of the movie mentions the "Closet Scene," where Lillian Gish's character is hiding from her abusive father in a closet, screaming for help. Apparently, at an advanced screening, one critic had to leave the theatre after watching it and vomiting violently. Having read about the scene before I actually watched it, I was preparing myself for something awful and grotesque and capable of giving me nightmares. But no, I got a too-long, simple shot of Lillian Gish making screaming faces and turning in little circles. Hardly horrific. What's interesting to me is that I found the usage of such words as "Chink" and "Oriental" as really really horrifying. Indeed, I felt like upchucking all over the floor after seeing those words printed on the screen. It just goes to show how the notions and ideas of sensitivity have changed. When did these words become wrong, derogatory and pretty much forbidden? I wonder if viewers back in 1919 would have been unaffected by those (now considered) derogatory words - would they have even laughed at them, or just acknowledged them as everyday phrases, a "then-modern" slang? And with the "Closet Scene?" I have watched it twice now, and I still feel unattached and almost as if I'm watching something mildly interesting on daytime TV. Granted, Lillian Gish's face is slightly unsettling - but not to the point where I'm sick to my stomach. I imagine that audiences flocked to the theatres for Lillian Gish, after seeing her in Birth of a Nation - essentially, they didn't go see the movie because they either condemned or celebrated interracial love stories. They went because of the two leading roles, occupied by white stars. I wonder if the usage of the derogatory words in the script had any affect on the people watching - if it was, was the excuse that it was Hollywood, and Hollywood could do whatever they wanted? Did this kind of film validate the awful stereotyping that Asians and Asian-Americans would continue to feel, even today? It is interesting that I am more sensitive to a few words on the screen instead of a scene of child abuse. Is this a case of hyper-sensitivity and looking for racism? Or is this just a different mindset from the intended audience? Interesting that the film itself has not changed over the past (almost) 100 years (yowza), but it's meaning and intent has warped itself as the years go by and as sensitivity evolves.
My mentor/advisor/teacher Giselle Chow and I were also discussing the "model minority" stereotype and it's possible connection with Broken Blossoms. At first, it's quite possible to dismiss any connection between the current model minority stereotype and "The Yellow Man" in D. W. Griffith's film. The model minority stereotype didn't even really come into being until the 1960s - up until then, "Orientals" were shown to be lecherous, demonic, slanty-eyed laundrymen who killed people with hatchets and threatened to invade and infiltrate white American society. However, "The Yellow Man's" story (until he falls in love with the girl) is an interesting reflection of the most basic part of the model minority stereotype - success. Opium and loving 15 year olds aside, "The Yellow Man" has success in his economic venture - he runs a small curio shop, does well with his small business and maintains pretty good connections with his white customers. He did not rely on anyone for help or funds or anything - his moderate success is indicative of the whole "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." Even the subservience of "The Yellow Man's" character and how he dutifully gives the right amount of change, and bows people out of his shop shows a potential model minority stereotype brewing. True, he never attends any school or scores 100,000,000 on the SAT or wins a school spelling bee - but the seed of the silent, subservient, successful Asian was most likely planted in movies like this, whether it was intentional or not. What is interesting to note is that this model minority makes the wrong move by falling in love with a white girl - and ends up paying for his mistake with his life.
To be continued...