Biography of D.W. Griffith, Director of 'Birth of a Nation'

The Controversial Hollywood Pioneer and Pariah

Filmmaker D.W. Griffith directing a film circa 1918
D.W. Griffith at work. (G.W. Bitzer is behind the camera; the little boy at Griffith's right has been identified as Ben Alexander of Dragnet, meaning this is probably Hearts of the World, a 1918 film.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor David Wark "D.W." Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948) was a pioneering, yet controversial, creative force in early Hollywood. Griffith is credited with inventing or popularizing many foundational cinematic narrative techniques, and he was arguably the most important director in the first decade of Hollywood film production. However, Griffith's legacy is primarily defined by his 1915 film The Birth of Nation. While it was a milestone in American cinema from a technical standpoint, the film's racist depiction of African Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan influenced the activity of hate groups.

Fast Facts: D.W. Griffith

  • Full Name: David Wark Griffith
  • Occupation: Film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor
  • Born: January 22, 1875 in Oldham County, Kentucky
  • Died: July 23, 1948 in Los Angeles, California
  • Notable Films Directed: Lady Helen's Escapade (1909), A Corner in Wheat (1909), In Old California (1910), The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920)
  • Fun Fact: From 1953 through 1999, the highest honor bestowed by the Directors Guild of America to feature film directors was named the D.W. Griffith Award.

Griffith grew up in rural Kentucky, the son of a former Confederate Army colonel who passed away when Griffith was ten years old. His career in show business began when he moved to New York City in 1907 and was cast in a short film co-directed by American film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, Rescued from an Eagle's Nest. However, Griffith's passion was being a filmmaker. In 1908, he co-directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, for the Biograph Company, one of the earliest film production companies. Griffith soon became an extremely prolific filmmaker, shooting a short film for Biograph nearly every week. As his renown and ambition to create more complex films expanded, Griffith moved on to Mutual Film Corporation and later formed his own company, Reliance-Majestic Studios (informally known as "Griffith Studio").

Griffith's early career featured a number of key cinema firsts. His 1910 short In Old California was the first production to be shot entirely in Hollywood, and his 1912 short The Musketeers of Pig Alley is arguably the first gangster film. Griffith's 1914 feature The Life of General Villa actually starred the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa as himself. Griffith's 1909 short Mrs. Jones Entertains was the film debut of actress Mary Pickford, and Griffith's 1912 short An Unseen Enemy was the film debut of actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Pickford would star in many of Griffith's early shorts, and Lillian Gish would go on to star in all of Griffith's best-known films through 1921, and both would become two of Hollywood's first movie stars.

A battle scene from D.W. Griffith's 1915 film 'The Birth of a Nation'
Ku Klux Klan members on horseback drive a black militia out of town in a battle scene from 'The Birth of a Nation,' directed by D. W. Griffith, 1915. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Birth of a Nation: Success and Controversy

Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation was based on the 1905 play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., which Dixon adapted from his novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The Clansman presented the post-American Civil War Reconstruction era as a plot by the Republican Party to gain a voting stronghold in the former Confederate states by rewarding former African American slaves with spoils taken from their former masters. The story lionizes the role of the racist organization the Ku Klux Klan, depicting the group as heroes fighting against poorly-educated, manipulative, and violent African Americans and their Northern allies.

Though The Clansman became very popular as a stage play in the American South, it was immediately criticized for its historically inaccurate content and was even banned in several major cities, including a few in the South. Nonetheless, the significant popularity of the play was an impetus for Griffith to adapt it as a film.

From a technical standpoint, The Birth of a Nation is a groundbreaking film for numerous reasons. It was the first 12-reel film (the premiere cut ran even longer) and was the first film that many moviegoers saw that contained techniques like close-ups and fade-outs. It also was one of the first feature films to be distributed with a full-length sheet music score intended for the film's screenings. The epic length and scope of the film (including large-scale Civil War battle scenes staged with the help of West Point Military Academy engineers) granted immediate legitimacy to film as an artistic medium. Tickets for screenings were sold at a cost many times higher than typical cinema admission.

The Birth of a Nation was the first film to screen inside the White House on February 18, 1915, and that screening, along with a screening the following day in Washington, DC, which featured many government officials in attendance (including all nine Justices on the Supreme Court) was used by Griffith in promotion and advertising as an implied "stamp of approval" from the U.S. government.

However, the negative impact of The Birth of a Nation on American culture and its perpetuating of harmful stereotypes would overshadow the film's technical achievements. Unfortunately, the popularity of The Birth of a Nation led to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan (the original organization had died out by the early 1870s), and many of the tactics and attire utilized by the revived Klan were directly influenced by their appearance in the film.

The film's controversial politics reflected Griffith's upbringing in post-Reconstruction Kentucky and it was protested by many organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and by prominent Americans like Booker T. Washington. As a result, Griffith was stung by the negative reception to the film, even in light of its immense popularity with audiences. Both Griffith and Dixon would make numerous public statements defending the film, and Griffith would later add title cards to the opening to defend it, even comparing it to "the Bible and the works of Shakespeare," which also contain controversial elements.

Despite the criticism and controversy, The Birth of a Nation was a blockbuster success and held the record of the highest-grossing film of all time until the 1939 release of Gone with the Wind. Regardless of the box office success, Griffith felt personally attacked by the criticisms of The Birth of the Nation and planned his next film to be, in part, a response to accusations of racism.

The founders of United Artists: Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith
The United Artists Corporation was founded by four of the leading figures in early Hollywood : Canadian-American actress Mary Pickford, British actor, director, screenwriter and producer Charles Chaplin, American actor, director, screenwriter and producer Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and director D.W. Griffith. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Intolerance, United Artists, Broken Blossoms, and Griffith's Later Years

Griffith titled his next film Intolerance, with the title reportedly referring to how he felt that protestors were intolerant regarding The Birth of a Nation. Intolerance was even more epic in scope than The Birth of a Nation, presenting four intercut stories exploring examples of intolerance throughout history. Most famously, one of the film's sequences depicted the fall of the Babylonian Empire with grand sets and thousands of costumed extras. While Intolerance was profitable, it was not as successful at the box office as The Birth of a Nation. Following the release of Intolerance, Griffith directed several World War I films for Paramount Pictures.

In what was then a groundbreaking moment in independent cinema, in 1919 Griffith joined with three other major Hollywood stars (Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks) to establish a new production company which was appropriately titled United Artists.

Griffith's first release for United Artists was one of his most successful films, 1919's Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl. The film stars Lillian Gish opposite Richard Barthelmess in "yellowface" (i.e., a white actor made up to appear Asian) as a kindly Chinese man who tends to her after her abusive father beats her. Broken Blossoms was both a critical and financial success for Griffith, though it would prove to be one of the last major successes of his career. The United Artists arrangement ultimately proved to be largely unsuccessful for Griffith (he directed just ten features released by United Artists before exiting the partnership in 1925, with the last film being Sally of the Sawdust, a co-production with Paramount Pictures), though it did mark an important step in filmmakers making major productions outside of the studio system that dominated Hollywood at the time.

One of Griffith's other notable films during this period is 1921's Dream Street. Though it was financially unsuccessful, it features a prologue that includes Griffith speaking to the audience about the film and two other sequences utilizing a very early sound film process.

Though he left the United Artists partnership, Griffith's last five features were released by UA. His final two films, 1930's Abraham Lincoln and 1931's The Struggle, were Griffith's only full-sound features. Afterwards, Griffith largely retired from filmmaking except for serving in uncredited production capacities on a few films, including 1936's San Francisco and 1940's One Million B.C. Griffith died in Los Angeles on July 23, 1948.

Early Hollywood filmmakers Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith c. 1930
Pioneer Hollywood directors, Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) (left) and D W Griffith (1875-1948) on the set of a biblical epic. Griffith appears to be about to sign an autograph for Demille, circa 1930. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation's Legacy

Because the most acclaimed part of his career was before the beginning of the major Hollywood awards, Griffith did not receive any significant film awards until the end of his career, and those that he did receive were for career achievement. In 1936, Griffith was awarded an Honorary Academy Award, and in 1938 the Directors Guild of America awarded him its Honorary Life Member Award. Posthumously, Griffith was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

Five years after his death, the Directors Guild of America created the D. W. Griffith Award as the organization's highest honor for film directors. However, in 1999 the award was stripped of Griffith's name and renamed the Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Achievement in Motion Picture Direction because of the content of The Birth of a Nation. The final recipient of the D. W. Griffith Award was filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola in 1997, and the first director to receive the renamed award was Steven Spielberg in 1999 (no award was presented in 1998). While critics and film scholars still acknowledge The Birth of a Nation as a groundbreaking film from a technological and artistic standpoint, its contributions to the craft of cinema have been overshadowed by its content for modern audiences.

While the overt racism of The Birth of a Nation remains the defining characteristic of Griffith's reputation in the present day, six films directed by Griffith are preserved on the U.S. National Film Registry, including The Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms.


  • Schickel, Richard. "D.W. Griffith: An American Life." Simon & Schuster, April 1, 1984.
  • Stokes, Melvyn. "D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time." Oxford University Press, January 15, 2008.