Yellowface and Broken Blossoms response, due 10/8

October 6, 2009

For Class–post here by noon on Thursday–how did the film Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith 1919) imagine/portray Asian Americans? How does this fit into the history of “yellowface performance” from the Ito article. Please write 5 sentences. You should  also do some simple Internet research on the film to have a bit of context, but please respond to what you see (as opposed to just summarizing what people say about this film.) REMEMBER TO BRING YOUR COMMENTS AND THE ARTICLE TO CLASS.

We’ll be in Young 417.

Watch the film here:


21 Responses to “Yellowface and Broken Blossoms response, due 10/8”

  1. Heather Putman Says:

    “Broken Blossoms” fits into the History of Yellow Face performance, as described by Robert Ito, through it’s outlandishly racist appearance and more subtly racist meanings. The lead actor, Mr. Richard Barthalmass, is decidedly not Asian, and his Caucasian-ness is disturbingly apparent though he portrays “The Yellow Man.” The extras however, like Ito illustrates in his article, are Asian and the disparities show: whereas The Yellow Man’s companion in the temple, as well as the street vendors, are realistic in their appearance, Barthalmass’ yellowface is ghoulish with its matte pallor and darkened eyebrows, and looks like an application of cheap pancake Halloween makeup! Appearance isn’t the only factor that affects this yellowface performance – certain aspects of the film contribute to the film’s Anti-Asian sentiments. First, the intertitles insult the primary audience – that is, the white audience – when it describes the Anglo-Saxons as barbarous and the Asian community of Buddha as peaceful. The preaching of the Yellow Man as he tries to break up the fight between American sailors is equally effective in its message: Look how awkward, how far removed, how naive this Yellow Man is! The boys were just having a bit of fun – as the intertitles helpfully explain – even though the Yellow Man’s voice of peace is sound.

  2. Annie Says:

    Ito’s article focuses on the fact that whites portrayed Asians for the longest time in Hollywood and it was referred to as “Yellowface”. The name is disturbing enough, and then to see it in “Broken Blosson” is even more disturbing. The fact that Ito mentions in his article that white’s “played better Orientals” is something very strange to think of. The way Asians are portrayed in “Broken Blossoms” is of course very stereotypical. The whole movie looks like a back drop of a Chinese food restaurant. Ito mentions that all white actors would do (instead of actually being Asain because they are in fact white) would be to portay the stereotype of an Asain. And this unfortunately satisified audiences.

  3. Tatiana Galli Says:

    The article “A Certain Slant: A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface,” by Robert Ito greatly emphasizes and explains the “yellowface performance” (the history of the yellowface performance) show in Griffith’s film Broken Blossoms. The leading actor, Richard Barthalmass, plays an Asian man who travels to England to bring Buddhism and peace to the West. Just as described in the article, that mostly white actors played the main Asian roles in films, Richard Barthalmass is indeed a white actor playing the main role, who just so happens to be an Asian character known as “The Yellow Man.” Richard Barthalmass appearance as the “The Yellow Man” stressed, as stated in the article, the fact that makeup design for an Asian performance was terrible in the past- it was extremely unrealistic and somewhat disturbing to look at. Although the main character, an Asian character, of the film was played by a white actor, Asian-born actors played either minor roles or extras. For example, in the scene that takes place in a town in China, all the people besides Barthalmass and the American sailors were Asian actors. Lastly, Broken Blossoms, although a great accomplishment of Griffith, showed quite some racism. For example, Barthalmass’s character was known as “The Yellow Man” or at times referenced as “a chink.” There are many stereotypes expressed in the film: such as the Asian race known as opium smokers, Asians betting some source of grain/seed (what looked like some type of bean) during poker games, etc. (there are many others portrayed in the film).

  4. Ari Lifschutz Says:

    In the article “A Certain Slant: A Brief history of Hollywood Yellowface,” by Robert Ito, he shines some light on the background of caucasians performing as asians in show business. From the movie Broken Blossoms, you can break down Ito’s article. The main character Mr. Richard Barthalmass is definitely not of asian descent, and his make-up artist does a horrible job of trying to make him look like one. This is much like Ito’s comments when discussing the make-up of the actors he talks about how they would pin up a model of a real asians eyes and slant the caucasians actors eyes with rubber bans, but everyone knew the actor looked nothing like a real asian. As well in broken blossoms although he is trying to spread Buddhism, he still is seen smoke opium at times when it appears he is down, which is stereo-typing. Lastly, according to Ito, real asians would only get the roles of workers, crazed army vets, and occasionally if they were lucky as the sidekick. In Broken Blossoms, you see all the lesser roles and background roles are played by real asians, while all the big roles are played by either whites, with the the girl Lucey Burrows, her father Battling Burrows, and of course a caucasian playing the lead asian role in Mr. Richard Barthalmass, also known as Cheng Huan in the movie. There are many other stereo-types you can pick up on in the movie but personally the fact that Ito states Certain directors felt audiences did not want to look at an oriental face for a long period of time, so they made caucasians look like them, makes me sick of our history.

  5. Irene Ruiz Dacal Says:

    One of the most interesting things about the movie is its evident inclination to portray Cheng Huan as a completely peaceful and inoffensive man (at least before he shoots Burrows); he doesn’t conform to traditional Western standards of masculinity. This can be seen in the second scene, where he is being beaten by a group of Western boys. He is also completely exoticised and stereotypical: the Buddhist/pacifist who seeks to correct Western ways but is “woken up” to an urban lifestyle as a shopkeeper does nothing but repeat stock images of the Asian immigrant. His suicide at the end also helps to underline the fact that he is different, though inhabiting a Western society: he is deeply traditional and does not adapt to English culture. This portrayal is underscored, of course, by the fact that Richard Barthalmass is not himself Chinese, and wears heavy prosthetic eyelids that make him appear, at best, sleepy and short-sighted (as pointed out in the Ito article). In the end, as Ito mentions, Barthalmass’ performance does nothing to explore the profundity of race issues and shows a “general lack of seriousness and sensitivity” (2)

  6. Tanner Senter Says:

    After reading, “A Certain Slant”, all I could think has was the one statement, “white actors simply made better “Orientals”. Now, in the article it says the reason is because the white actors train to become their characters; while Asians are playing too human, which didn’t make much sense neither. It’s bad enough this whole matter is called “yellowface.” in the movie, Broken Blossom, the main character is the white man and in the movie they call him “The Yellow Man”. In the movie they had all these other Asians, and couldn’t find one more to fill in the role. The biggest surprise was in the article. It said that David Carradine was chosen over Bruce Lee in a martial arts movie. I felt really awkward about this whole article and how Hollywood handles their business; using white people to fill in for Asian and even black characters roles often for the sake of job security.

  7. Katie Cato Says:

    Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, although an attempt to promote tolerance during a time of strong anti-Chinese sentiments, still promotes the “yellow face” stereotypes. In the film, the main character was white, yet played a Chinese man; he used various stereotypical actions such as walking hunched over in an almost sheepish way, slightly closing his eyes to make them appear smaller, and posing in very vulnerable or weak poses. As the Ito article stated, “the white actors were often actively trying to play ‘Orientals,’ trying to play the stereotypes.” Also the other supporting Chinese roles were given to actors of Chinese descent but the main role was given to a white man. Also throughout the film, Barthelmess’ character was portrayed to be the “sensitive Yellow Man,” or the gentle one, contrasted with the “barbarous Anglo-Saxons” such as the father; this was an attempt to shine the Chinaman in a good light, however this still promotes the stereotype that all Asians are weak and timid. It is very ironic that Griffith claimed to use this film to foster a better attitude towards the Chinese and yet he did not even use a Chinese actor in the lead role; the justification brought up in the article, that the audience didn’t want to see an Asian actor in the lead part due to their prejudices, was most likely used.

  8. The film Broken Blossoms is a prime example of “yellow facing” as defined in Ito’s article. It is shocking that the extras and smaller roles are all casted to actual Asians, but the main character of Cheng Huan is played by an American actor, Richard Barthalmass. It is most evident that Barthalmass is not asian, and his make-up doesn’t make him anymore realistic as an Asian. Clearly, heavy eyelids and a peculiar walk do not disguise someone as a different race. Many other stereotypes exist in the film. The character of Cheung Huan is a peaceful, harmless man who is defeated by the white man, further contributing to the idea of white supremacy. While he does end up shooting Lucy’s father, he is unable to protect his love against abuse and harm and commits suicide because of his failure to triumph in the overwhelmingly white world of London. Ito claims that a common excuse for all-white casting in the early days of film is that directors were “giving the audience what they want.” Yet, I find it a bit humorous and very ironic that the audience wanted to watch a white actor poorly playing a role take his own life. If I was Barthalamass, I probably would have wished for an swift end to a terrible job also.

  9. Kelly Glenn Says:

    In viewing the film Broken Blossoms and reading Robert Ito’s, “A Certain Slant” they work together to demonstrate the key components of “yellow face” as defined in Ito’s article. It is interesting to note that the main character in the film is an American, Richard Barthalmass, playing Cheng Huan. It is very apparent that Barthalmass is not Asian, and the make up does not cover it up much, but every other extra Asian in the movie, is actually played by Asians. This film seems to be trying to suggest tolerance during a time period of anti-Chinese but by simply using this actor the “yellow face” stereotype is exemplified. Ito’s article supports this by discussing the background of whites pretending to be Asians in films and how it was ineffective. This proves to be true for multiple races, as Ito states, but when he mentioned “white actors simply made better Orientals” I found it surprising because it then became not about the accuracy about the film but what the audience would prefer to see. Obviously, an American might play the stereotype more prominently, but not as accurately which makes the purpose of the film seem less important. Overall, though it seems to be easier to have an American play the role of a minority, it ends up creating social issues rather than solving them, which can be the objective of films like Broken Blossoms often.

  10. Kaitlyn Says:

    Broken Blossoms is based on Thomas Burkes book titled, “The Chink and the Child” Being filmed in 1919, the Broken Blossoms teeters the line of being a racist film. Having the Yellow Man Richard Barthelmess, who is a Caucasian actor play a Chinese character in the early 1900, is taking a risk in film. However, it’s a movie and actors are supposed to fill the roles of characters. It is a dicey step in having a Caucasian actor play a Chinese character but its simply acting.

  11. Montana Hammonds Says:

    The article “A Certain Slant” is an article that gives an in depth historical overview of Asian Americans in film. Historically it has been more acceptable for Caucasian actors to play roles of Asians. As Ito’s article explains how people didn’t want to see Orientals for extended periods of time, I began to see much hypocrisy in this claim by white audiences. How can you watch someone act out stereotypes and dress as a fake Asians but not actually watch a real Asian? I didn’t find much sense in this claim. Another claim I did not find sense in can be seen in the movie “Broken Blossom.” It is the theory that Asians were not qualified to play Asian roles, without the opportunity to play lead roles how can they gain experience. Also, I don’t believe I need practice to act African American, or a white guy needs lessons on how to be white. This time period is based solely stereotypes that can be seen in “Broken Blossom” such as the need to spread Budda. Who said all Asian Americans believe in Budda?

  12. Eunice Heredia Says:

    The movie Broken Blossom and Itos “A Certain Slant”, connect with each other by the description of the leading roles. In Itos “A Certain Slant” he describes how easy it is to convert a person to look Asian, he says “When the ‘appearance of reality’ becomes secondary concern, the process of turning a white person into an Asian becomes fairly simple.” Therefore become Asian was an easy way to create a character of Asian decent. This is shown in the movie Broken Blossom, the lead actor is white and producers made him Asian so he can fit the leading role. Though they did not give an Asian the leading role, but the extras were Asians. This was seen upon as a racial stereotype and had made audiences aware the film industry did not want anyone from the actual race to play their part. Though Ito says “…the white actors were often actively trying to play ‘Orientals,’ trying to play the stereotypes…” This was viewed as an easy to the white actors for they did not struggle playing an Asian. Though this is viewed on the time period that many races could not play their own part race wise.

  13. Emily Sadler Says:

    It becomes apparent in “Broken Blossoms” as well as in the Ito article, that white people have issues with every other race but their own. It’s pretty alarming to see a white man dressed up as an Asian man, acting in the typical stereotypes while real Asian’s act beside him. Ito writes: “white actors, most of whom had never seen an Asian person, performed in yellowface for audiences who also had never seen a real, live Asian. The notion of Chineseness became familiar to the American spectator long before sightings of the actual Chinese” (2). This statement is shocking to me and just goes to show how stereotypes are the easy way out when trying to accurately judge and portray somebody’s race and ethnicity. In the film, the way out for Cheng Huan is suicide, once again showing the power of the white race over the “other.” The third justification for yellowface Ito writes is, “that white actors made better “Orientals” than Asian actors did, since white actors were often actively trying to play “Orientals,” and trying to play the stereotypes” (3). Barthelmess’s performance at the time might have been a “great” portrayal of yellowface, but today he just looks like a fool dressed in Asian style clothing. It’s sad to see white’s portray people of other races, when their portrayals can so easily be viewed as offensive to our eyes today.

  14. Amy Slay Says:

    Robert Ito divulges the history of yellow face performance in his article “A Certain Slant”. His overview of how Asians were originally depicted in film can be seen in D.W. Griffith’s film, Broken Blossoms. The main character is played by Richard Barthalmass, a white actor. I found the grotesque makeup and overall appearance of Barthalmass to be deeply disturbing. Furthermore, as mentioned in Ito’s article, the only roles actually played by Asian actors were those of extras. Essentially, they were being made extras in their own lives, showing a deeply racist tendency in the media portrayal of those who fall outside the blurry lines of “whiteness”.

  15. Cecilia Hayne Says:

    The silent film “Broken Blossoms” epitomizes the history of “yellow face” performance because the main actor, Richard Barthalmass, uses “yellow face” to depict Cheung Huan, a man of Asian decent, even though he is Caucasian. Similar to whites using “black face” to perform as African-Americans, “yellow face” degrades and deteriorates the role of Asians in society by having a white man act as an Asian rather than having an Asian play the character; having a white actor fill this role implies to the audience that the Asian actors, who are merely extras in the film, are not talented enough to play lead roles. Ito’s article points out that audiences did not want an Asian lead actor because of their prejudices against that ethnicity; if this is true, why was a film that centered around an Asian main character even made? Why did audiences enjoy a film that resulted in a white man dressed in “yellow face” committing suicide? When Huan kills himself, he is not only giving up on love and life in London, he is giving up on proving his masculinity to the society that oppresses him. White audiences must have enjoyed witnessing an “Asian” man harm himself due to white supremacy because his demise, and all other ethnicities other than Caucasian, guaranteed a long rule of white power and influence in media.

  16. Erica May Says:

    It was beneficial to read the article, “A Certain Slant” prior to viewing the video “Broken Blossoms” because Robert Ito explains the thought processes and justifications that the film industry uses while fitting “yellow face” performances into the big screen. It is disturbing and confusing to me that casting directors placed a white man rather than an man of asian descent to play an asian character. Ito explains that the film industry is ultimately attempting to please their audience as well as pleasing their white actors who could apparently portray asians better than asians themselves. It actually seems as if it would be easier to cast an asian actor, rather than going through the trouble of changing a white man into what they see his character being. By having white men portray asians in film, audiences (who have rarely or never been in contact or seen a real asian) may retrieve unrealistic impressions of how asians really are. For example, the makeup work and the exaggerated movements in the film do not parallel what an asian actor would provide. This gives away an impractical representation of the true asian culture, and I believe American audiences at this time should have been exposed to a more truthful image.

  17. Gwen Baldwin Says:

    Ito’, “A Certain Slant”, and the silent film , “Broken Blossoms” both illustrate and show how the term, “Yellow Face”, truly was used and accepted. Audiences did not only accept what they saw, but were happy with it. The film degrades asians by not only imitating them and stereotyping them, but also by never letting them have a role and portraying asian correctly. When thinking about why whites would have allowed this, one reason was that they might not have known what asians were like or might have never even seen anyone who was asian. However, Ito states that, “… yellowface performances continued to flourish on stage and screen long after these sightings of “actual Chinese.” Therefore, it is interesting that even after whites saw asians and experienced them they still allowed for the degrading of asians. Furthermore, it is strange to me that even after the idea of the “black face” that people would still allow the stereotyping of the , “yellow face”

  18. seychelle Says:

    The film Broken Blossoms portrays a white actor playing an asian character. The history of the use of ‘blackface’ becomes reused as ‘yellowface.’ The film disallows asians to portray a truer image of their reality. The directors believed that by a white character playing this role, the audience would respond better. The interesting fact is that even after a white actor representing a black man on the stage was unacceptable or politically incorrect, they felt that they could still portray white actors as asian. Now looking at this film, it seems completely clear that the actor is white and just surrounded by asian props. It is surprising to me that the movie industry would still think that portraying an asian with a white actor is still acceptable.

  19. Brittany Fisher Says:

    Robert Ito’s article “A Certain Slant” and D.W. Griffith’s film “Broken Blossoms” are directly related in that they both negatively portray the outlook and stereotypes placed on Asian Americans in show business. Ito’s article mentions several examples of White actors playing lead roles as Asians (or “Yellowface”), while in Griffith’s film the viewer can witness this directly. I find it insulting and offensive that such options weren’t even available to Asian Americans at the time because “there just weren’t any ‘qualified’ or talented Asian or Asian American actors…’we would surely have sniffed them out by now’. Of course, this type of thinking is a catch-22 for so many Asian actors, who can’t find work because they lack experience, and can’t get experience because all the good Asian roles go to White actors.” The lead role in “Broken Blossoms”, Cheng Huan, is portrayed by Mr. Richard Barthalmass, a so very obvious White man, whereas ironically the extras are in fact Asian. A poor makeup job, the squinting of the eyes, a hunched over vulnerable body position and the occasional puff from an opium pipe hardly distinguishes a person’s race, and moreover it further contributes to the negative stereotypes that have been placed on the Asian culture.

  20. Alicia Fischer Says:

    “Broken Blossom” and “A Certain Slant” both negatively portray Asians. I was disgusted how directors believed that white actors could play the Asian roles more convincingly than Asians could. This belief demonstrated the idea of racial domination. What disgusted me was how much time and resources were wasted to make these white actors appear Asian. If the directors would have selected Asian people for the roles, there would be no preparation necessary.

  21. Michelle Everst Says:

    The main point that Robert B. Ito makes in his article “A Certain Slant- A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface” is to highlight the fact that large roles never went to actual asians. In early productions, white actors were portraying characters that they had never actually seen in person, and their interpretation of asians were all that the American audiences had been exposed to. Of course this meant that whatever the public saw was a horrible interpretation of blatant stereotypes and it is interesting to note that Hollywood directors felt that white actors made better Asians than actual Asians in their films. The 1919 film Broken Blossoms did include “real” Asians who played background characters, but the lead roles were definitely played by white men dressed to look Asian. The result of a white man attempting to slant his eyes left a poor impression of the perceived intelligence of Asians that I feel audiences must have seen at the time. The main character had a bemused and rather unitelligent and almost mentally handicapped look plastered on his face throughout the whole film.

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