D.W. Griffith

Icons of the Century

The movies had already become a popular entertainment medium by the time David Wark Griffith made “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, but perhaps one way to gauge the revolutionary impact he had is to try to remember what pop culture and mass communication were like before the Internet.

Griffith brought so many innovations to filmmaking that instead of listing them it would be easier to say that every subsequent movie has either been an homage to or reaction against his discoveries. He combined visual art, literature, performance and theater in a way that transformed culture.

He also tried to keep movies in the hands of their creators by co-founding United Artists. But Griffith was the son and heir to the racial prejudices of a hard-charging Confederate war hero, and the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan in “Nation” has forever branded Griffith in a kind of infamy.

The talkies ended Griffith’s career, and history buried him in revisionist shame. Genius doesn’t always choose the wisest people to live in.

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