Those who affect a superior attitude toward a great artist such as Lillian Gish are not only ignorant of our cultural heritage but stubbornly unaware that art usually comes from deeply imperfect people. If we are to strip the names of every flawed artist from public buildings, stop watching their films, reading their books, viewing their paintings, or listening to their music, we will have little art remaining.”
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In 1983-84, while I was writing The American Film Institute Salute to Lillian Gish for CBS-TV with producer George Stevens Jr., I had the privilege of traveling the country to see virtually all of Miss Gish’s surviving films and television programs in various archives. It was a thrilling experience to study the pioneering work of the woman long regarded as the greatest actress of the silent screen; Gish’s film career, which will never be equaled, lasted from 1912 to 1987. As our host, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., put it, “She was there at the birth of an art form.”
Her many great films range from Broken Blossoms, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind in the silent days to the 1955 masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. Her extensive work in the theater and television maintained her unrivaled standards of deep emotion, humor, intelligence, grace, and integrity. Gish’s acting is a beacon to show us our humanity, and she was outspoken in the causes of universal brotherhood and the preservation of our arts, especially film.
So it was with mingled disbelief and outrage that I read that Lillian Gish is the latest victim of our curse of “political correctness” run amok. The trustees of Bowling Green State University in her native Ohio decided on May 3 to strip her name from its Gish Film Theater in the Student Union because she was one of the stars of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation. The theater was named after her and her sister, Dorothy, who was also a star of silent films. The university gave Lillian Gish an honorary degree and had no problem proudly honoring her extraordinary legacy until protests by the Black Student Union over her participation in Birth led the university to cast her into the netherworld for representing what it calls the film’s “face of Aryanism.” (Hypocritically, the university has no plans to give away Gish’s bequest for an endowment and scholarship program or her archival collection.)
A university should be a place where the history of the arts is studied with care and perspective and the debate over artists’ legacies should be allowed to flourish, rather than a place where, as too often happens today, we try to obliterate from awareness the controversial aspects of our troubled history.
Yes, The Birth of a Nation is a deplorable film, racist to its core, a full-hearted paean to the Ku Klux Klan made by an unreconstructed Kentuckian whose father had been a Confederate colonel. This appalling film provoked riots and helped lead to a resurgence of the Klan. And yet it is also acknowledged as a landmark in film history, a great advance in the art of cinematic narrative storytelling. One of the many disturbing paradoxes of our national history is that artistic importance can be linked to the repugnant ideology of slavery and white supremacy.
Gish participated wholeheartedly in Birth and took an active role in Griffith’s filmmaking career and maintaining his legacy. Questioning her involvement is not as absurd as the way John Ford, the future director who was then an actor, stuntman, and crew member, has been denounced as a racist by Quentin Tarantino for playing a bit part as a Klansman, even if that is only a footnote in Ford’s long and rich filmmaking career. I wonder if Tarantino also thinks the actors who played Klansmen in his Django Unchained are racists.
For all her brilliance as an actress, Gish never quite seemed to understand the social issues surrounding Birth. She made excuses for Griffith, claiming he was not really a racist and offering some of the same kinds of tone-deaf, patronizing apologies he also made. But both also felt the need to make amends by filming Intolerance, Griffith’s 1916 epic in which Gish plays the symbolic Mother rocking the cradle of history, and by making the 1919 Broken Blossoms, an interracial love story between Gish’s British waif and a Chinese man (that film also predictably comes under attack today for having a white actor play the Asian role, even if, as Andrew Sarris wrote in The American Cinema, “When Richard Barthelmess first confronts Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, the subtle exchange of emotions between the two players would defy the art of the greatest novelist”).
But rather than behave like ostriches and pretend The Birth of a Nation doesn’t exist, or symbolically banish one of its leading actresses, why can’t we study the film and face its implications squarely and intelligently? Should an actor, however illustrious, be permanently marked anathema for a major, deeply misguided career choice? Should we expect artists to be perfect human beings or their bodies of work always to live up to our contemporary standards? It’s no defense to claim that “everyone” was racist back in 1915, which was far from the case, although President Woodrow Wilson himself was a flagrant racist and hosted a screening of Birth at the White House in the presence of Griffith and Gish. The NAACP and many political and artistic figures deplored the film from the start, and for many filmmakers it remains a cause celebre, notably Spike Lee, who judiciously skewers it in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman.
It may seem ironic, but more accurately is a sign of his sophistication, that Lee in 2013 accepted the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize from the Gish Prize Trust for “his brilliance and unwavering courage in using film to challenge conventional thinking, and for the passion for justice that he feels deep in his soul.” Lee said on that occasion, “Would you believe, two of the most important films that impacted me while I was studying at NYU starred Miss Lillian Gish. Those films were D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Isn’t it funny (sometimes) how life works? And how ironic life can be? God can be a trickster. Peace and love to the Gish Sisters. . . .”
The Directors Guild of America in 1999 provoked a controversy by removing Griffith’s name from its career achievement award. Director Robert Wise, one of the DGA board members at the time and a past president of the guild, provoked a further controversy when he told me in a subsequent interview that he thought the guild was wrong to dishonor Griffith and had overreacted to pressure. (Bowling Green cited that DGA precedent as one of its justifications for stripping Gish’s name from its theater.)
But it’s long past time to get beyond knee-jerk, grandstanding outrage over our belated discovery that some actor or director or writer or composer once (or maybe more than once; maybe even often) was guilty of social attitudes and actions we deplore. Underneath all this, I detect not so much a serious desire to confront our past in a nuanced, thoughtful way as much as a myopic form of self-congratulation. How much wiser and more tolerant are we today! Surely, we would never be guilty of making a film that offends any particular group! But how will some of our films of 2019 look to audiences a hundred years from now? We can only imagine how benighted many will seem. The much-maligned black comedian Stepin Fetchit, a star in the 1930s, told me in 1970 that “Hollywood was more segregated than Georgia under the skin,” and things have not gotten much better in Hollywood or, indeed, in our country at large, where our current president indulges white supremacist ideology.
A columnist for the Toledo Blade, Kirk Baird, made the radical suggestion that rather than the university taking the action it did, “rather than stoking the flames of controversy with weak-willed capitulation and disregard for context,” Bowling Green should have “expanded the discussion into a teachable moment.” Then it could have “lived up to the university’s charge to educate the students through analytical thinking, and to challenge conventional wisdom as well as personal beliefs.” Baird proposed that the university should have offered “free screenings of the significant work from Gish’s substantial oeuvre, which included The Birth of a Nation, followed by dialogue from university film professors, pop culture experts, and historians and an audience Q&A.”
Perhaps it is not too late for that to happen, and people to reconsider their rash actions as Robert Wise once did, but education increasingly is not what our beleaguered educational system is about anymore. Those who affect a superior attitude toward a great artist such as Lillian Gish are not only ignorant of our cultural heritage but stubbornly unaware that art usually comes from deeply imperfect people. If we are to strip the names of every flawed artist from public buildings, stop watching their films, reading their books, viewing their paintings, or listening to their music, we will have little art remaining. I suspect that is actually the goal of our PC Police. They are fundamentally anti-art. For art is inherently disturbing. It can and should have the ability to shake us up, make us question our preconceptions, make us reevaluate where we have been, how far we have come, and how far we still need to go.