D.W. Griffith: A Complicated Legacy

Image via WBUR

D.W. Griffith might have transformed modern cinema, but his legacy is tainted by bigotry.

David Wark Griffith started his career in film in the year 1908 as a minor character in a film entitled, “Professional Jealousy.” Shortly after completing this role, he was recruited by Harry Marvin to be the main director at Biograph Company – one of the first motion picture companies dedicated solely to production and exhibition and it was this opportunity that set him on the path to becoming a renowned name in cinema.

In the first year alone, he directed forty-eight short films. He continued to make hugely successful short films for four years, then, in 1914, he directed a feature film named, “Judith Of Bethulia.” Like most of his films, it was dark, revolving around the Jewish city of Bethulia and invaded by Assyrians, the citizens of the city began to starve as all trade was cut off by invaders, and a young woman named Judith seduces the general of the Assyrians, and subsequently plots to murder him. Women played major roles in many of his films, which departed from social norms of the time.

While Griffith looked favorably on female roles in film, he was notoriously racist as seen in his most (in)famous film, “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that revolves around an enslaved Baptist preacher on a plantation, and his disgust at how his fellow people were treated when talk of a revolution begins. A film full of racial slurs would be appalling to a modern day audience, however, in the early 1900s, the audience was quite approving and applauded the sectarian style of cinema. His film style was always directly to the point, very rarely humorous, and almost always of pertinent to the political climate.

He had quite a bleak childhood. His family struggled financially after his fathers’ death when he was 10 years old, causing him to leave school in order to support his family. It wasn’t until later that he tried his hand at acting, where he was largely unsuccessful. He did however, find great success in producing and directing. Like many successful people, the fame went to his head and he began to make movies that hurt the sentiments of many people of different races and walks of life.

That said, he pioneered a number of important innovations in the world of cinema, and despite leaving a trail of bigotry and racism, he transformed the industry for the better. The great Charlie Chaplin even went so far as to call him, “The teacher of us all.”

His last words on film were, “What the modern movie lacks is beauty – the beauty of the moving wind in the trees…they have forgotten that entirely. They have forgotten the movement in the moving picture. It is still and stale. Too much today depends on the voice we have taken beauty and exchanged it for stilted voices.” These words still ring true. On this day, July 23, 1948, the man who was both adored and despised breathed his last breath. Regardless of how one might feel about him personally, his contributions to filmmaking were comparable to none, and thus have cemented his name in the history.

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