LOS ANGELES -- D.W. Griffith is widely considered to be the most influential American in the development of motion pictures, directing more than 450 films, including the epic "Birth of a Nation."

But while that 1915 film is regarded by many historians as the greatest film of the silent era for its astounding re-creations of Civil War battles, it also stirs controversy because it glorified the Ku Klux Klan and contained degrading depictions of blacks.Because of those racial stereotypes, the Directors Guild of America announced Tuesday that it will rename its prestigious D.W. Griffith Award, the guild's highest honor and a bellwether for the Academy Awards.

"As we approach a new millennium, the time is right to create a new ultimate honor for film directors that better reflects the sensibilities of our society at this time in our national history," DGA President Jack Shea said.

The round crystal trophy named for Griffith has been given to Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Robert E. Wise, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Ford and Cecil B. De Mille.

"There is no question that D.W. Griffith was a brilliant pioneer filmmaker whose innovations as a visionary film artist led the way for generations of directors," Shea said.

"However, it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes."

Depictions of black behavior in other Griffith films also assault late-century racial sensibilities, and the guild has heard complaints in recent years over the award's name.

Its announcement Tuesday was hailed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It was the right thing to do," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said in a telephone interview. "This award should have never been given under the name of D.W. Griffith. It was the NAACP that first protested in 1915 against 'Birth of a Nation.' We've lived with the horrors that took place."

The DGA national board, which voted unanimously to retire the Griffith Award, will announce the name of its replacement award later.