The DGA Is Right, D.W. Griffith Was Wrong

Those who oppose the Directors Guild of America’s decision to retire the D.W. Griffith Award for Lifetime Achievement (“DGA Blundered by Removing Griffith’s Name From Award,” Saturday Letters, Dec. 18) are all missing one very important point.

The arguments opposing the decision acknowledge that in “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), Griffith made the statement that race determines moral and intellectual superiority, and that people should fight to ensure that this belief be a fundamental element of American society.

The opposing arguments maintain that Griffith’s other work is being ignored n light of “The Birth of a Nation"--while nonetheless acknowledging that “The Birth of a Nation” was the movie in which Griffith made his most significant contribution to the art of filmmaking.


The opposing arguments point out that “The Birth of a Nation” was in keeping with the prevalent views of the society in which he lived. They say the movie must be viewed in the context of its times in order to appreciate its significant contribution--specifically, Griffith’s technical and storytelling artistry.

All of this is absolutely true.

But this is also absolutely true:

Out of all the stories he could have chosen to tell, out of all the views he could have chosen to express, out of all the statements Griffith could have chosen to make . . . he chose to make one that is inarguably wrong. It was wrong before he made “The Birth of a Nation,” it was wrong when he made “The Birth of a Nation,” it is still wrong. That it was prevalent in his--or any--society does not make it any less wrong. And it is not politically correct to point out that it is wrong. It is politically correct to excuse it because somewhere, sometime, someone believed it was right.

Which brings me to the point that those who oppose the DGA’s decision have missed:

The D.W. Griffith Award for Lifetime Achievement in Motion Picture Directing is not given to honor D.W. Griffith.

It is given to honor a director whose lifetime achievements are deemed worthy of extraordinary recognition.

The award was named after D.W. Griffith in honor of him, not to honor him. At the time it was named, his lifetime achievements were considered exemplary of the directors who would be honored by the award. He was the standard by which all other directors would be measured.


In retiring the award, the DGA is not denouncing D.W. Griffith’s significant contributions to the art of filmmaking. The DGA is not rewriting history--recipients of the D.W. Griffith Award in the past are still recipients of the D.W. Griffith Award.

But the past is the past. Simply because a thing has always been thus does not mean it must always be thus.

In retiring the award, the DGA is doing one thing only: It is changing the standards--as exemplified by D.W. Griffith--for which a director’s work should be honored.

The technical artistry of a director’s work should not be recognized regardless of its content.

The content of a director’s work should not be ignored simply because it is in keeping with the prevalent views of the society.

The views a director chooses to express in his work are as important as the manner in which he expresses them.

Now, as a screenwriter, I would not mind at all if directors wished to give up the responsibility for those choices. The entire membership of the Writers Guild of America would gladly and without reservation step up to the task. “Don’t worry,” we would say. “You just make sure our stories are told with all the technical artistry you can muster. All that worrying and decision-making about the content? You’re completely absolved. Just leave it to us. Here’s your baseball cap; off you go now.”

For some reason, I doubt the membership of the DGA would get in lock-step with this philosophy. Nor should they; collaboration is necessary to the making of any movie.

But this means that if you want the extraordinary privilege of choosing the work you will direct, and shaping the content of your work, you must be extraordinarily aware of the content of your work, and weigh it wisely. It is no longer enough to meet the standard set by D.W. Griffith. You must do better.

And that means considering carefully what you are saying--not just how you say it.

In retiring the award, the DGA has set a new standard, and has well demonstrated this standard.

I applaud them for it.

Now, in light of this new standard, what say we take another look at that whole possessory credit thing. . . ?

Ted Elliott, a resident of Playa del Rey, is a screenwriter whose credits are all collaborations with directors.