These notes accompany the program D. W. Griffith on a Smaller Canvas, which screens on January 6, 7, and 8 in Theater 3.
Although D. W. Griffith’s racism was unforgivable, nothing can ever take away the fact that he was the most gifted and creative director in the cinema’s first thirty years. In John McWhorter’s December 14, 2009 New Yorker review of Pops, Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, McWhorter says Armstrong’s early 78-rpm recordings “were as crucial in creating our modern musical sensibility as D. W. Griffith’s films were in creating the grammar of cinematic narrative.” McWhorter goes on to say of Armstrong that, “While performers around him assimilated his innovations, he never really grew.” One might also argue that this was true of Griffith, and not simply because he lost his independence for the final decade of his career due to his inept business sense and changing public tastes. However, his greatest gift never really failed him—his skill with actors. Read more