Despite inauspicious beginnings, D. W. Griffith, who died in 1948, made nearly five hundred films and gained the respect of such artists and directors as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford. Griffith became the single most important figure in revolutionizing the film industry in the early twentieth century. His silent film The Birth of a Nation is considered the first major work of modern American cinema but is just as recognized for its overt racism as for its pioneering filmmaking.
Griffith, whose full name was David Llewelyn Wark Griffith, was born on January 22, 1875, in Crestwood, Kentucky. After his father, who had served as an officer in the Confederate army and as a
Kentucky state legislator, died when Griffith was only 10, his mother moved the family to Louisville, Kentucky, where she opened a boarding house that failed. To help with finances, Griffith left high school and worked at various jobs. After failing as a playwright, he decided to become a movie actor. In 1908, he joined the Biograph Company in New York City as a writer and actor but soon assumed the main director's position.
While with Biograph, Griffith turned previously experimental filmmaking techniques, such as camera movement, lighting, close-ups, long shots, flashbacks, fade-ins and fade-outs, and cross-cutting editing, into established techniques for making films. Though not the inventor of these techniques, Griffith employed them so effectively that he pioneered filmmaking as an art form. Working with a select group of Biograph's stock talent, including Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish, Griffith was also able to develop a more fitting film-acting style. He became fundamental in laying the foundations of the movie industry in Hollywood through seasonal filming in California. In 1913, Griffith directed and produced Judith of Bethulia, one of the earliest feature films produced in the United States and the first Biograph feature film. When Biograph proved resistant to longer features, Griffith left the company, taking his cameraman and the stock actors with him. He formed his own production company, buying rights to Thomas Dixon Jr.'s novel The Clansman (1905).
Griffith began filming The Clansman in 1914 and released it in 1915. He spent a record-breaking budget on the movie, which was over three hours long. Griffith retitled the film in its initial release because he did not believe the original title did justice to the scope of the movie. The Birth of a Nation became the first real blockbuster and the highest-grossing film ever until surpassed by Gone with the Wind (1939). Griffith directed every scene himself, using all of the tools and techniques that he had developed during his time with Biograph. He even had a musical score composed for the movie and hired the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to play it for the premiere, something that had never been done before. The Birth of a Nation became the first film screened in the White House, supposedly causing Woodrow Wilson to proclaim, “It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Though debatable as to whether Wilson ever actually uttered this phrase, the anecdote is now recounted at the beginning of most prints of the film. The Birth of a Nation was so trailblazing that film historians almost universally consider it the foundation of the modern American film industry as a narrative art.
The KKK was such a part of the film that when it premiered klansmen in full dress publicized its opening. Though seriously debated, critics argue the “second-era” KKK owed its birth to the film, as the KKK formed again at Stone Mountain, Georgia, later that year. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded just a few years before The Birth of a Nation premiered, wanted the film banned, protested its premiere, and directed a public education campaign against it. Screenings led to riots in some cities where it did show, including Boston and Philadelphia, and anger prevented it from opening in several midwestern cities, including Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. In some places where the film opened there were reports of whites attacking blacks, and there was even a case of a white man murdering a black teenager.
Griffith was shocked by the backlash over the film, believing it to be an antiwar film that was accurate about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Despite (and even because of) its blatant racism, the film is important as a mirror of its own time. For instance, when many Americans opposed World War I, it served as a reminder of the horrors of war and the negative impact war had on people. Even in its racism, The Birth of a Nation was in step with the Dunning School, which depicted Reconstruction as a time when the South fell prey to northern carpetbaggers and southern scalawags while suffering from the enfranchisement of freed blacks. In his defense of the film, Griffith expressed paternalistic attitudes towards blacks, and during its second run, he added two opening title cards to defend the film with his “A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE.” Despite its polarizing effect, the importance of The Birth of a Nation could not be ignored, and it was regularly considered the greatest American film until the 1960s.
Griffith released his next film, Intolerance: Love's Struggle throughout the Ages (1916), largely in response to his critics. In sweep and scope, Intolerance was even more ambitious than The Birth of a Nation. At three and a half hours, and costing more to make than any film to that time, Griffith used monumental sets and thousands of extras to show the negative impact of intolerance with four different historically set stories. His parallel editing between these stories and his use of music for narrative structure were revolutionary. Though Intolerance was a critical success and did solid box office business, it was not a success financially.
Griffith died in Hollywood on July 23, 1948, of a cerebral hemorrhage. But his legacy had been established before his death, and Americans honored him posthumously as well. In 1936 he was honored with a special Academy Award for his contributions to film art, and in 1940 the Museum of Modern Art did a retrospective of his work. His image was put on a postage stamp in 1975 for the 100th anniversary of his birth. Two decades earlier, in 1953, the Director's Guild of America instituted the D. W. Griffith Award as its highest honor; nevertheless, true to the controversy surrounding his best-known work, the Guild renamed the award the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 because of the racial stereotypes fostered by The Birth of a Nation.
See also: Film ; Ku Klux Klan (KKK) ; Leisure ; Progressivism
Barry, Iris. D.W. Griffith: American Film Master. New York: Museum of Modern Art Press, 2002.
Henderson, Robert M. D.W. Griffith: His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Williams, Martin. Griffith: First Artist of the Movies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1980.