Griffith began his career as a hopeful playwright but met with little success; only one of his plays was accepted for a performance. Griffith decided to instead become an actor, and appeared in many plays as an extra.
Influenced by a European feature film Cabiria from Italy, Griffith was convinced that feature films could be financially viable. He produced and directed the Biograph feature film Judith of Bethulia, one of the earliest feature films to be produced in the United States. However, Biograph believed that longer features were not viable. According to actress Lillian Gish, "[Biograph] thought that a movie that long would hurt [the audience's] eyes". Because of this, and the film's budget overrun (it cost US$30,000 dollars to produce), Griffith left Biograph and took his whole stock company of actors with him, and joined the Mutual Film Corporation and formed a studio, with Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken known as Reliance-Majestic Studios (which was later renamed Fine Arts Studio). His new production company became an autonomous production unit partner in Triangle Film Corporation along with Thomas Ince and Keystone Studios' Mack Sennett; the Triangle Film Corporation was head by Griffith's partner Harry Aitken, who was released from the Mutual Film Corporation and his brother Roy. Through Reliance-Majestic Studios, he produced The Clansman (1915), which would later be known as The Birth of a Nation. The Birth of a Nation is considered important by film historians as one of the first feature length American films (most previous films had been less than one hour long), and arguably it changed the industry standard to one still recognized today. It was enormously popular, breaking box office records, but aroused controversy in the way it expressed the racist views held by many in the era (it depicts Southern pre-Civil War black slavery as benign, and the Ku Klux Klan as a band of heroes restoring order to a post-Reconstruction black-ruled South). Although these views matched the opinions of many American historians of the day (and indeed, long afterwards), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People campaigned against the film, but was unsuccessful in suppressing it. It would go on to become the most successful box office attraction of its time. "They lost track of the money it made," Lillian Gish once remarked in a Kevin Brownlow interview. Among the people who profited by the film was Louis B. Mayer, who bought the rights to distribute The Birth of a Nation in New England. With the money he made, he was able to begin his career as a producer that culminated in the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone with the Wind, was also inspired by Griffith's Civil War epic.
However, after seeing The Birth of a Nation, audiences in some major northern cities also responded by rioting over the film's racial content. After The Birth of a Nation had run its course in theaters, Griffith would also respond to the negative reception a vast amount of critics gave the film through his next film Intolerance, which dealt with the effects of intolerance in four different historical periods: the Fall of Babylon; the Crucifiction of Christ; the Massacre of the Huguenots; and a modern story. During its release, however, Intolerance was not a financial success; like The Birth Of A Nation, Griffith put a huge budget into the film's production, which was also a key factor in its failure at the box office. The production partnership was dissolved in 1917, so Griffith went to Artcraft (part of Paramount), then to First National (1919-1920). At the same time he founded United Artists, together with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. At United Artists, Griffith continued to make films, but never could achieve box office grosses as high as either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance.
Though United Artists survived as a company, Griffith's association with it was short-lived, and while some of his later films did well at the box office, commercial success often eluded him. Griffith features from this period include Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921) and America (1924); the first three were successes at the box office. In 1924, Griffith was forced to leave United Artists after Isn't Life Wonderful failed at the box office, and returned to Paramount as a director. Griffith made only two sound films, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). Neither was successful, and he never made another film. For the last seventeen years of his life he lived as a virtual hermit in Los Angeles. In 1936, director Woody Van Dyke who had worked as Griffith's apprentice on Intolerance, asked Griffith to help him shoot the famous earthquake sequence for San Francisco. Though Griffith was uncredited, the Clark Gable - Jeanette MacDonald - Spencer Tracy blockbuster was the top-grossing film of the year.
Motion picture legend Charles Chaplin called Griffith "The Teacher of us All". This sentiment was widely shared. Filmmakers as diverse as John Ford and Orson Welles have spoken of their respect for the director of Intolerance. Regardless of whether he actually invented new techniques in film grammar, he seems to have been among the first to understand how these techniques could be used to create an expressive language. In early shorts such as Biograph's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) which was the first "Gangster film", we can see how Griffith's attention to camera placement and lighting heighten mood and tension. In making Intolerance the director opened up new possibilities for the medium, creating a form that seems to owe more to music than to traditional narrative. Griffith was honored on a 10-cent postage stamp by the United States issued May 5, 1975.
In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award, its highest honor. Its recipients included Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, John Huston, Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Griffith's friend Cecil B. DeMille. On December 15, 1999, however, DGA President Jack Shea and the DGA National Board—without membership consultation (though unnecessary according to DGA's regulations)—announced that the award would be renamed the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award because Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation had "helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes". The following living recipients of the award agreed with the guild's decision: Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet.