His Trust (1911)
This early melodrama is a good example of why modern audiences can have a hard time with Griffith, and with early film in general. It has many of the same problems for us as “Birth of a Nation” does, although it is much shorter and refrains, at least, from glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. The subtitle alone: “The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of an Old Negro Servant” is enough to set our teeth on edge, although “Negro” was not considered an insulting term at the time, nor even a few generations ago. “Servant” here is, of course, a euphemism for “slave,” as the movie is set in the South during the Civil War, a period that lived in the memory of the older and the myths of the younger generations at the time (it was as distant to them as the Kennedy assassination is to us today). The “servant” is played by a white man (Wilfred Lucas, also in “The Girl and Her Trust” and later “Modern Times” with Chaplin) in black face, another practice that is no longer acceptable. I would encourage viewers, not to ignore their sense of discomfort with this movie, but to regard it as evidence of an important shift in American history. One African American commentator on film I heard observed that stories like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were popular among black audiences of the time, because, in spite of the stereotypes, they at least suggested the possibility of noble action on the part of black people, and this movie falls into that category as well. Today, the stereotypes are no longer acceptable, and I’d say that’s a good thing, but this phase in history remains significant in understanding race in America.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Camera: Billy Bitzer
Run Time: 14 Min
You can watch it for free: here. (Along with the sequel, “His Trust Fulfilled”)