When embarking on a retrospective journey through the annals of cinema, the last three luminaries one encounters are the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, and D.W. Griffith. While the Lumière brothers pioneered the invention of cinema, Georges Méliès enriched it with narrative elements and delineated the entire spectrum of possibilities, extending to the various genres of cinema in his groundbreaking use of effects. D.W. Griffith, on the other hand, stands as the architect of the modern principles governing this nascent art form, laying the enduring foundations that persist in contemporary filmmaking.
Though D.W. Griffith’s acclaim is fraught with controversy, a fact to be addressed in due course, it is undeniable that he stands as the singular individual who imparted the art of filmmaking to a broader audience. The films bearing his signature, particularly “The Birth of a Nation,” encapsulates the foundational elements of an industry that continues to evolve and thrive. Even in the present socio-political context, the mention of figures like Griffith is almost taboo, yet, despite reluctance, delving into the artistry and life of this controversial individual becomes imperative. Exploring how he revolutionized cinema from top to bottom, unraveling his motivations, and engaging in a discourse on the allegations of racism against him is especially pertinent in these times.
David Llewelyn Wark Griffith was born in La Grange, Kentucky, just outside Louisville, as one of seven siblings. His father, Colonel Jacob Wark Griffith, was hailed as a hero of the American Civil War—or so the tales go. In our director’s life, his father held a significant place because David was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Colonel Griffith was quite an intriguing figure, often referred to by various nicknames such as gold prospector, plantation owner, untalented art enthusiast, and unlicensed medicine peddler. His primary moniker, however, was Roaring Jake. Claiming descent from the Warrior King Kralls, he spun tales akin to those of war. Father Griffith had a penchant for stories, introducing his son to the works of Shakespeare, Poe, Dickens, and Longfellow, fostering a love for literature.
Simultaneously, the person responsible for our director’s future as a filmmaker was none other than his father. Jacob Wark Griffith occasionally introduced his son to primitive cinema by taking him to the Magic Lantern. What a charming father, wouldn’t you agree? Yet, this same father laid the groundwork for his son, who would later become one of history’s greatest racists. Father Griffith molded his son thoroughly in the tradition of Southern racism, hoping for him to follow in his footsteps—a true patriot.
At the age of 10, D.W. Griffith lost the father he would later profess to have loved the most. The circumstances of his loss were quite peculiar: Father Griffith, enjoying whiskey and homemade pickles, met his demise when the stitches in his stomach burst. His father’s death marked a profound turning point in the director’s life.
Before Father Griffith’s demise, the family farm faced difficulties. Although the Civil War had long ended by the time David was born, the reborn America that emerged from the war shook the foundations of many families. The abolition of slavery, especially in the southern United States, caused significant disruption. David, therefore, attributed all the problems on the farm not to his father but to the aftermath of the Civil War, blaming the events on the conflict.
Following his father’s death, the family moved to Louisville. D.W. Griffith, attempting to support the family, engaged in various jobs. Despite harboring dreams of education, he could only spend a maximum of 2-3 years in classrooms. His sister, a teacher, became his source of knowledge. However, his heart was always inclined toward artistic pursuits.
Consequently, he initially gravitated towards the theatre, taking on minor roles in some theatrical productions and even working behind the scenes as a props assistant. His mother wished for him to become a pastor, not an actor. However, driven by his passion for the arts, he left everything behind, defying his mother’s wishes, and moved to California and later to New York with aspirations of becoming a writer.
Griffith approached Edison’s company on his path toward becoming a director, attempting to sell them a screenplay. However, he found himself cast as an actor instead. Though he engaged in acting for a while, his perspective shifted entirely after directing “The Adventures of Dollie,” starring his wife Linda. Despite Griffith’s initial dissatisfaction with his first film, the audience’s reactions profoundly affected him, leading him to the decision that he should no longer pursue acting.
Unable to secure what he sought from Edison, Griffith turned to Biograph, where he briefly continued his acting career. However, facing economic challenges at the time, Biograph, grappling with a shortage of directors, offered Griffith a six-month directorial contract based on the recommendation of cameraman Arthur Marvin. David accepted, under the condition that if he failed, he could return to acting. Yet, he never returned to acting, achieving success with his first film.
Years in Biograph
Griffith’s years at Biograph were remarkably productive. Over five years, he directed a total of 450 short films, learning the art of directing and elevating his actors to fame. Collaborating with actors such as the Gish sisters and Mary Pickford, Griffith produced films spanning various genres, from drama and comedy to horror and action. The Gish sisters even emphasized their allegiance to David rather than Biograph, stating, “We worked for David, not for Biograph.” At the end of five years, when Griffith left Biograph, they went with him.
Griffith’s contributions to cinema began during his Biograph years. In the early 1900s, film posters didn’t include actors’ names. In fact, even Griffith’s name was absent from his early Biograph films. However, the allure of the Gish sisters and Mary Pickford prompted audiences to inquire about the identities of these figures. They became known as the “Biograph girls” in popular culture. Seeing the rising fame of his actors, Griffith started including their names on posters. Eventually, his name, too, found its place.
Griffith, not a fan of the prevailing style of trick films produced by George Melies, preferred a more straightforward narrative approach. Many of his films drew inspiration from his own childhood, frequently featuring rural settings where he grew up. Griffith believed in the cinema camera’s potential to bring about “social change” and was one of the early visionaries who recognized the power of cinema. Perhaps this foresight led him to address subconscious thoughts in his later film “The Birth of a Nation.” He was an energetic director, not content with sitting behind the camera; he would step in front of it, demonstrating to his actors how to perform.
After five years, Griffith parted ways with Biograph. Having directed 450 short films, he now envisioned creating feature-length films. However, contrary to his aspirations, Biograph wanted to invest in short films. In response, Griffith and his actors declared their independence to create the legendary movie that would define his career.
The Birth of a Nation
Following his tenure at Biograph, Griffith rolled up his sleeves for what would become the pinnacle of his career – The Birth of a Nation. This monumental project, requiring a staggering $110,000, translates to $3 million in today’s currency, evolving into a project spanning weeks. The film’s rehearsals alone lasted six weeks. In the same period, he could have produced numerous films at Biograph. However, Griffith had a different intent: to craft a grand cinematic spectacle. While he succeeded in his aspiration, the foundations upon which he built his film were so flawed that he ultimately crumbled beneath it.
Let us initially discuss the merits of the film. In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith narrates the story of two families, one from the South and the other from the North. However, he employs a parallel narrative structure, depicting these two disparate tales simultaneously. During that era, such a dual storytelling approach was groundbreaking. The film, focusing on the internal war—the Civil War—between families supporting different sides, introduced many unprecedented techniques.
The parallel narrative structure, action scenes on horseback, cutting between close-ups and long shots, extreme close-ups, deep focus shots, special effects, and its relatively lengthy duration of three hours showcased numerous “innovations.” However, The Birth of a Nation is not merely a special film due to these innovations. According to many, Griffith had crafted the first example of modern cinema. It was a cinematic example encompassing all the techniques still used in cinema today, with a rising and falling tempo that could captivate audiences for hours—an early example of the first blockbuster film in historical terms.
Following The Birth of a Nation, cinema underwent a profound transformation. Even those within the same industry learned a great deal from Griffith and his film. His theories served as an inspiration to Russian filmmakers who would later shape the future of cinema. Eisenstein, who would contribute a new theory to cinema with Battleship Potemkin, drew inspiration from The Birth of a Nation.
Griffith, concurrently, defined the modern director. Unintentionally, he set the stereotype for many directors in the Hollywood system from 1927 to 1948. The iconic image of a director with a megaphone and a straw hat began with him. Interestingly, the straw hat was not a stylistic choice; it stemmed from his fear of losing hair and served as a sunshield.
Now, let’s delve into the other side of the coin. Adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel “The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” the film, despite Griffith’s reluctance to acknowledge it, was an unabashedly racist production. All the Black characters in the movie are portrayed solely as barbarians who eat, drink, and curse. They are nothing more than savages attacking the white populace. Simultaneously, they are depicted as uncouth individuals who take off their shoes in Congress, drink alcohol, and verbally attack others.
One intriguing aspect of the film is that none of the actors portraying Black characters were actually Black. All the Black characters in the film are played by white actors with painted faces. However, this was an example of the prevalent racism of that era. At a time when it was unlikely for Black characters to appear in films, those who did were often limited to roles as servants, chauffeurs, or other positions in the service sector, which itself was a rarity.
However, the sole factor that brought the film into the spotlight for controversy was the presence of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK, portrayed as the hero of the film, was greeted with applause from the audience. According to reports, Ku Klux Klan members utilized Griffith’s film in their recruitment efforts until the 1970s.
Griffith’s controversial film received approval even from the White House. President Woodrow Wilson personally summoned Griffith and expressed his admiration for the film. Unfortunately, the film, like a new civil war, divided the entire country. While the film was banned in many cinemas nationwide, in numerous places, cinemas were requesting the extended cut. However, the intensity of the objections was high. People took to the streets to protest the film. William Walker recalls watching the film in a cinema exclusively for Black individuals, noting that some of the audience members were sobbing. The film’s portrayal of Black individuals was tantamount to insult.
D. W. Griffith never admitted to being racist at any point in his life. His defense was adapted to the prevailing circumstances. Despite the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Black individuals remained second-class citizens, subject to disdain and exclusion. The damage suffered by the South due to the abolition of slavery only intensified the hatred toward Black individuals. In such a climate, the success of a film depicting Blacks as monsters would not be surprising. While the film achieved economic success, garnering a revenue of 500 million dollars in today’s inflation-adjusted terms, it seriously tarnished Griffith’s reputation.
Griffith felt compelled to respond, and he chose to do so through filmmaking. Released in 1916, “Intolerance” is a direct inspiration from Cabiria. Similar to the colossal historical sets of Cabiria in 1914, the film is a cinematic journey attempting to narrate ancient times with grandeur. The entire film was designed by referencing 19th-century paintings.
Griffith presents four different stories in the film: Babylon in 539 BC, the crucifixion of Jesus, the Renaissance in 1572, and an American story in 1914. Each story revolves around a theme of destruction. While Griffith aimed to depict the pain caused by his version of intolerance, his dreams did not find commercial success at the box office.
“Intolerance” remains a debated film even today. Some argue that the film serves as an apology, while others see it as an act of stubbornness. Nevertheless, the film manages to undertake actions that provoke questioning and anger. In this instance, accusations are made that the film indulges in anti-Jewish sentiment during the crucifixion scene of Jesus. All Jews in the crucifixion scene are depicted in an unflattering manner.
The studio intervenes in this scene, seeking a reduction in the depiction of Jews and an increase in the portrayal of Romans. Similarly, the studio desires more explicit sex scenes in the film, but Griffith opposes this idea. Consequently, the studio has these scenes directed by another filmmaker.
“Intolerance” failed to save the director from the arrows of criticism. The director, who spent more money on this film than “The Birth of a Nation,” witnessed a colossal failure at the box office. The film’s failure signified a financial setback and marked the beginning of the director’s seemingly endless descent.
For “Intolerance,” Griffith spent three times the amount he spent on “The Birth of a Nation.” Even more, perhaps. People waking up in the city where it was filmed would see a towering city outside their windows every morning. The sets were so enormous that they were visible from everywhere. However, the reality that Griffith failed to grasp was that the colossal sets could not obstruct the view of KKK members on horseback being celebrated like heroes. Emotions and meaning were more potent than grandiosity.
Griffith could not replicate the success he achieved with “The Birth of a Nation.” The film, which elevated him to legendary status, faced difficulties as it both drew criticism for its portrayal of African Americans and failed commercially. Some viewed Griffith’s subsequent film as an apology, while others saw it as a defiance. Nonetheless, he persisted in filmmaking for a considerable period.
During this time, his most significant success was becoming one of the partners in United Artists, a production company that still exists today. Founded in collaboration with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, United Artists became part of the Studio System that would rise with the advent of sound in cinema. While they were among the eight major figures who would dominate the industry, their positions during this Golden Era were relatively modest. With its more artistic approach compared to other major studios, United Artists produced films for figures like Chaplin, Keaton, and Howard Hawks.
From 1916 to 1931, Griffith had the opportunity to make films every year, but the impact of his films diminished as new directors entered the market. Later, figures like Chaplin, who would become his partner, and his box office rivals Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd emerged, dominating the industry for a while with comedy films.
However, the game in the market changed entirely with the advent of sound in cinema. With the arrival of sound in 1927, Hollywood underwent a profound transformation, marking the beginning of the studio system, where employees were contractually bound to firms for a 21-year period. While United Artists, the company Griffith co-founded, managed to adapt to this system, the director himself struggled to keep pace.
By 1930, Griffith successfully directed his first sound film, “Abraham Lincoln.” This film, ironically chosen, surprisingly portrayed Lincoln in a benevolent light, revealing Griffith’s interest in the Northern perspective. The choice of such a film, considering the accusations of racism against Griffith 15 years earlier and his portrayal of the war that emerged from the man whose life he brought to the cinema, might indicate a change in him or perhaps merely an adaptation to the prevailing circumstances. Alternatively, one could argue that he adapted once again to the circumstances.
In 1931, Griffith directed his last film, “The Struggle,” embracing irony in its title. After this film, the director withdrew from the public eye, spending the rest of his life introspectively and behaving much like his father. I wonder if he ever reflected on the mistakes he made while sitting on his veranda, sipping his drink, until his death in 1948.
About D. W. Griffith
When Griffith passed away on July 23, 1948, due to a cerebral hemorrhage, he was still a respected figure. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) started awarding the D.W. Griffith Award from 1953 onwards. In fact, a special postage stamp was issued in his honor in 1975. But even as he died, racism haunted him. As a result of pressure, the DGA changed the D.W. Griffith Award to a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
The singular detail that sets Griffith apart from other directors is his attempt to single-handedly create “The Birth of a Nation.” As mentioned earlier, black individuals struggled to find roles in films during that period, and films were predominantly composed of white casts. Despite the abolition of slavery, they had not gained full human rights. In some films, black characters depicted as servants or chauffeurs usually portrayed as comical and foolish characters. Therefore, black individuals who had the opportunity to act during those times had to essentially accept racism and portray the stereotypes imposed on them.
These were the minor incidents of those times. The most glaring example of racism on the screen was the portrayal of blacks as servants. However, Griffith felt the need to create a film entirely dedicated to demeaning blacks throughout its duration. At that time, there was no film example where all weapons were aimed at blacks. Griffith’s insistence on making such a film makes it impossible to believe his claim that “I am not racist.” The reason it is still debated today is essentially this: the need to make an entirely racist film rather than subtle forms of racism.
When “The Birth of a Nation” was released in 1915, Griffith was 40 years old. Crafting a hateful film based on the events that happened on his farm at an age where he was supposed to be mature, coupled with the need to follow in his father’s footsteps, creates a challenging dilemma. Either he was someone who just wanted to make films, adapting to the circumstances by making racist and then anti-racist films, or he was someone who, after expressing his racist side on screen, learned his lesson from the reactions he received.
In these times, unfortunately, it is quite challenging to separate art from the artist. Although certain groups fervently wish to obliterate the names and topple statues of past figures who made mistakes, they overlook one essential thing. If we live in a world where problems are gradually decreasing today, it is because of the mistakes made in the past. Which D. W. Griffith was not just a mistake; he was the person who laid the foundational stones for the modern narrative style in cinema. While “The Birth of a Nation” deserves all the criticisms for its content, it also deserves all the praises for its manner of conveying that content. Sadly, the subject matter of the first complete film in history embraces racism.
Twenty years later, Leni Riefenstahl would pioneer documentary techniques with “Triumph of the Will,” but she would also carry the Nazi title attached to her until her death. Coincidentally, Leni Riefenstahl, like Griffith, denied the accusations attributed to her and was acquitted by a court decision. Perhaps my next article should be about Leni Riefenstahl, and with that thought, I conclude my article here.
Sources and Further Information
- Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “The Oxford History of World Cinema,” Oxford University Press (1999)
- Teksoy, Rekin. “Rekin Teksoy’un Sinema Tarihi,” Oğlak Yayınları (2014)
- Scognamillo, Giovanni. “Amerikan Sineması,” Alternatif Üniversite (1994)
- Robb, Brian J.. “Silent Cinema,” Oldcastle Books (2007)
- Cousins, Mark. “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” (2011)
- Brownlow, Kevin & Gill, David. “D.W. Griffith: Father of Film” (1993)