Screen misrepresentation of Mexicans isn’t just a longstanding wrong; it’s an original sin. And it has an unsurprising Adam: D.W. Griffith.
He’s most infamous for reawakening the Ku Klux Klan with his 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation.” Far less examined is how Griffith’s earliest works also helped give American filmmakers a language with which to typecast Mexicans.
Two of his first six films were so-called “greaser” movies, one-reelers where Mexican Americans were racialized as inherently criminal and played by white people (a third flick replaced Mexican bandits with Spanish ones). His 1908 effort “The Greaser’s Gauntlet” is the earliest film to use the slur in its title. Griffith filmed at least eight greaser movies on the East Coast before heading to Southern California in early 1910 for better weather.
The new setting allowed Griffith to double down on his Mexican obsession. He used the San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano missions as backdrops for melodramas embossed with the Spanish Fantasy Heritage, the white California myth that romanticized the state’s Mexican past even as it discriminated against the Mexicans of the present.
In films such as his 1910 shorts “The Thread of Destiny,” “In Old California” (the first movie shot in what would become Hollywood) and “The Two Brothers,” Griffith codified cinematic Mexican characters and themes that persist. The reprobate father. The saintly mother. The wayward son. The idea that…