Griffith, David Wark (1875–1948) By Wiedenfeld, Grant
American film director D.W. Griffith was a pivotal figure in cinema’s ascendance as a mass medium and modern art form. He is best known for developing editing techniques, such as montage, that brought a new fluency and excitement to cinematic storytelling. He is also remembered for directing the racist blockbuster The Birth of a Nation, a film that has become iconic in prejudiced circles for its anti-African American message.
Born in rural Kentucky, Griffith came of age in the bustling popular theater as an actor and aspiring writer. Economic necessity led him to the Biograph Company, a film studio in New York City, where he would direct hundreds of films from 1908 to 1913, a period in film history known as the “Transition Era.” Cinema grew from a fairground attraction to a self-conscious art, exemplified by the feature-length fictional works that arose and were screened in dedicated theaters, with star actors and artists, during this time. The first wave of film historians gave Griffith credit for inventing the montage technique: a modern set of editing methods unique to cinema, the most notable being “parallel editing,” which created suspense or drew meaningful contrast by cutting from one line of action to another. Griffith also discovered and cultivated young star actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, and publicized his own authorship while the industry refrained from displaying credits. He participated in the formation of a new cartel of studios that shifted the American industry to Hollywood, California in the mid-1910s.