DW Griffith season at BFI Southbank this June
Throughout June BFI Southbank will host a month-long season dedicated to DW Griffith; described as the ‘Father of Film’ and the ‘Teacher of Us All’ by Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin respectively, Griffith was one of the greatest filmmakers of the silent-era. The season will re-examine his complex legacy, including his most famous film The Birth of a Nation (1915), a three-hour epic which was rightly accused of racism. Also screening in the season will be his first film as director The Adventures of Dollie (1908), the influential Intolerance (1916), his first talkie Abraham Lincoln (1930) and a three-part documentary from celebrated film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, DW Griffith: Father of Film (USA-UK, 1993).
As the ‘Father of Film’ Griffith pioneered film language which audiences now take for granted, from the use of close-ups for dramatic effect to parallel cutting (alternating two or more scenes that often happen simultaneously but in different locations). As the centenary of The Birth of a Nation (1915) is marked by a major international conference at University College London (UCL), the season will offer audiences a chance to re-evaluate Griffith’s most famous film with The Birth of a Nation at 100: A Roundtable Discussion. The roundtable will gather highly regarded keynote speakers from the UCL conference to present a contemporary assessment of this highly controversial and racist film a hundred years on. The season will also include a number of films starring Griffith’s favourite actress Lillian Gish. As well as The Birth of a Nation, Gish also starred in Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), A Romance of Happy Valley (1919), True Heart Susie (1919) Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Griffith’s repeated casting of Gish contributed to her becoming known as ‘The First Lady of American Cinema’ and helped create one of the first ‘movie stars’.
Films from slightly later in his career which will be screened will include Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924), a film which, although unsuccessful at the time of its release, was hailed by directors Roberto Rossellini and Jean Renoir as a model for neo-realism; America (1924) in which Griffith, a self-proclaimed Anglophile, presents the American Revolution as a civil war between Englishmen; and Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffith’s first talkie, telling Lincoln’s life story from his log-cabin birth to his assassination. Although he didn’t adapt well to sound, (Abraham Lincoln was his penultimate film) and was mostly forgotten toward the end of his career, Griffith remains a fascinating figure whose films demonstrate ground-breaking skills in storytelling.