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Rewriting History with Lightning – DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation

by Philip Concannon

“In the brief span of six years, between directing his first one-reeler in 1908 and The Birth of a Nation in 1914, Griffith established the narrative language of cinema as we know it today.” – David A. Cook, a History of Narrative Film (2004)

“DW Griffith, when you come right down to it, invented motion pictures. As Lionel Barrymore says, there ought to be a statue to him at Hollywood and Vine, and it ought to be fifty feet high, solid gold, and floodlighted every night.” – Mack Sennett

If you believe some of the things that have been said about him, there was no cinema before DW Griffith. Sure, there were other innovators in the medium’s nascent years, but Griffith was the man who broke new ground and unified these techniques into a narrative that played out on a scale unprecedented in American cinema. The Birth of a Nation was the first film blockbuster, it is unquestionably one of the most influential pictures ever made, and it immediately launched the man behind it into the pantheon of great directors. Whether or not he should remain there is another matter entirely, however, as we consider the thorny question that faces everyone who sits down to watch The Birth of a Nation – should this epic be considered as one of American cinema’s greatest achievements, or its greatest shame?

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