D.W. Griffith: Father of Film

Dir: Kevin Brownlow, David Gill, 1993. Documentaries.
D.W. Griffith: Father of Film
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, just like presumably every person born after 1928, I have a hard time sitting through a silent film. From the still surviving fragments showcasing a variety of short film subjects (train robbers to bathing beauties) to the masterworks from the twilight years of the silent film era by Josef von Sternberg it’s all similarly a bit hard to follow. This is what I would consider to be an annoyingly self-created barrier to my cinematic education because silent film is a whole exciting, if challenging, world unto itself and a vital tool through which to examine American history. Perhaps no American director presents such possibilities for revelatory discovery and, crucially, the worst kind of enduring cultural embarrassment as one D.W. Griffith, the “father of film.”  Kevin Brownlow, the esteemed British film historian and recent honorary Oscar winner, directed this 3-part documentary on Griffith and it offers the quickest route to understanding the man as icon and tragic victim of his own belligerent hubris without having to sit through the entirety of his films.

Griffith was the proud son of a Kentucky Civil War colonel and a prolific short film director who worked for Biograph Studios in New York.   Following the lead of DeMille and other film industry pioneers he headed west. Though he amassed a huge body of work as both a short and full-length film director he is singularly important for his film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Its dual legacy as both a pioneering work of film art and a grotesquely racist misunderstanding of the origins and aftermath of the Civil War will never truly be resolved. He is, in some ways, the American Leni Riefenstahl. Out of a shocking naiveté or a pathetically primitive world view he did not foresee the problems that would stem from his assault on the dignity of African American Southerners as lazy and childlike people who were better off as slaves under the care of their benign white masters. Just to put this in perspective, the heroes who ride in at the end are members of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s almost impossible to watch these scenes and keep in mind the ways in which The Birth of a Nation, with its inventive use of crosscutting, changed the art of filmmaking forever. Mostly one just cringes and thinks, “How much worse can this get?”  

The problem with scapegoating Griffith and his film as a lone vicious assault on every good thing that ever was is that it wasn’t created in a vacuum. American history has many shameful chapters and this film exemplified a perverse kind of sentiment that wasn’t out of step with everyone especially in the South. It’s extremely hard to watch but understanding it in the context that Brownlow provides goes a long way in helping us to understand both Griffith and the world that formed him.

Still what was especially illuminating from this documentary was the fact that The Birth of a Nation was controversial even in its own time. Many theaters around the country refused to show it and people attacked it quite openly. Griffith, in his narcissistic way, enjoyed the circus he had created. He would go on to make many more films but never again would he enjoy the influence and position of power that he held after The Birth of a Nation.  The film he made immediately following, Intolerance, was seen by some as an apology of sorts for the trouble he had stirred and featured four separate stories on the problem of “intolerance” throughout history. The film flopped and he never again attained the status he had enjoyed previously. He died alone in a Hollywood hotel in 1948.

The film community to this day still struggles with Griffith’s influence. It will never be fully resolved. His most important movie can never be understood solely on its aesthetic merits. It has the kind of cultural baggage attached to it that can never be excised (nor should it). But Griffith’s legacy is unfortunately intertwined with our own history and if we blame him for our country’s sins then we participate in a kind of cultural amnesia that is just as wrongheaded as his deeply misguided film.
Posted by:
Jed Leland
Oct 4, 2011 9:16am
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