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The Massacre1912

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  • 3.5
Controversial (to some) "father of cinema" D.W. Griffith tackles cowboy-and-indian territory with THE MASSACRE. What could initially be interpreted as an anti-Native American portrayal becomes a sympathetic tale of familial sorrow and the extent to which retribution can be unbalanced.


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To be honest the opening description for this film on Fandor is absurd: "Controversial (to some)." What? Let's not minimize Griffith's indefensible perpetuation of white supremacy in his ouvreau, shall we? His formal innovations can be appreciated at the same time that they must be read as operating in conjunction with his racism.

That being said, this early "Indian Western" is an example of what at first glance appears to be a "sympathetic" portrayal of Native Americans, in stark contrast to his well known, bestial portrayals of African Americans. Griffith was a Southern white man after all and his works genuflect at the altar of white womanhood. Formally, the film helped him establish some of the techniques for large scale, sweeping vistas that would be important for his infamous epic, Birth of a Nation.

The Massacre garners sympathy for the plight of Native Americans by showing the brutality of the U.S. government, which destroys a peaceful tribal village. We witness this violence before we see the justifiable retaliation of the tribe on the settler caravan. The key aspect here, however, despite this apparent "sympathetic" portrayal of Natives dealing with violent pioneers and soldiers, has to do with Griffith's representation of maternity and reproductive futurity. The Native mother and child perish, whereas the white mother and baby survive the massacre, affirming a white, settler future while the Native future is destroyed. The disappearance or death of the Native family is represented here as inevitable--an early cinematic example of the "vanishing Indian" trope--which is a cornerstone of settler colonial logic.