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Watching the Watchdogs: Lillian Gish and Bowling Green State University

Lillian Gish in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Bowling Green State University recently announced its decision to remove the name of “Gish” from their campus theater, which had originally been designated to honor both Lillian Gish (1893-1993) and her sister, Dorothy (1898-1968). In making this decision, the university cited objections over Lillian Gish’s starring role in D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking and influential, but also deeply racist film The Birth of a Nation (1915). This is one of the latest examples in a disturbing trend of retroactively punishing a public figure, be it a politician, artist, or other notable individual (often long-deceased, and thus no longer around to defend themselves), for some transgression against the standards of our current cultural sensibilities.

We saw this play out recently with the decision of the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers to stop playing Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at games (and, in the case of the Flyers, to also remove a statue of Smith located at their ballpark) due to her once having recorded two songs that contained racially-insensitive lyrics. Smith, who passed in 1986 and recorded the offending songs back in 1931, is now being posthumously punished for failing, in those two instances, to meet the politically-correct standards of 2019.

In this current political climate, it was unfortunately no surprise – perhaps even inevitable – when it was announced that Bowling Green State University had voted to rename its Gish Theater because of Lillian Gish’s connection to The Birth of a Nation. That film, which ignited a firestorm of controversy upon its release that has continued to this day, has long been justly criticized for its atrocious racism, but it is by no means the only film by which Lillian Gish should be remembered or judged.

In a career that spanned 75 years and more than 100 film and television appearances, Gish earned her reputation as the “First Lady of American Cinema”. From her first role in D.W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy (1912), in which she appeared with her sister Dorothy, to her last, in The Whales of August (1987), Gish’s prolific and acclaimed screen career can be seen as a kind of parallel to the history of cinema itself.

An intensely expressive performer who helped to define silent screen acting, Gish later said that she used her body as an artist uses his canvas. She excelled in taking on challenging roles that demanded a great deal both physically and emotionally, such as drifting on ice floes down a freezing river in Way Down East (1920), or working in the blistering heat and dust-storms of the Mojave Desert on The Wind (1928). Gish achieved a masterful blend of tender sensitivity and emotional fervor that marks many of her finest performances, such as the young woman brutalized by her hard-drinking prizefighter father in Broken Blossoms (1919, directed by Griffith and, notably, depicting a sympathetic inter-racial romance), the tragic Mimi in La Boheme (1926), and the delicate Letty Mason, alone at the mercies of a harsh and unrelenting environment in The Wind (1928). As an actor, Gish embraced these challenges and, in conquering them, created powerful performances that burn with an intensity that transcends the cold celluloid on which they were photographed and have endured for nearly a century or more.

Although her film roles became fewer and farther between with the coming of sound, she gave one of the best performances of her career as the motherly Rachel Cooper in Charles Laughton’s singular masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter (1955), and continued acting until her retirement from the screen in 1987. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw fit to honor her with an Honorary Oscar in 1971, and she received the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. And no less a master than Francois Truffaut paid tribute to both Gish sisters by dedicating his love-letter to filmmaking, Day for Night (1973), to them.

It was on the basis of this rich body of work, accomplished over a long and prolific career, that Bowling Green State University dedicated the Gish Film Theater and Gallery in 1976. The event was marked by a screening of Orphans of the Storm (1921), in which both sisters starred, and Lillian Gish received an honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts from the university. In the following years Gish also donated financial endowments and memorabilia from her own collection to the university, as well as creating a scholarship for film students. Following her death in 1993, the Gish Theater stood as a tribute to the lasting legacy of one of American cinema’s most celebrated actors.

That changed, however, in February 2019, when the Black Student Union at BGSU hosted a screening of Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th, which contains discussion of the legacy of racist imagery perpetuated by The Birth of a Nation. The screening was held in the theater in the Bowen-Thompson Student Union, which had become the new location of the Gish Theater after moving from its previous home of 43 years in Hanna Hall due to renovations. The realization that the film was being shown in a theater named in part for the star of The Birth of a Nation set in motion a push from the Black Student Union for the university to drop the “Gish” name from the theater altogether, simply because of Lillian Gish’s association with Griffith’s film.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith at the White House, 1922.

The news came in May that the Board of Trustees at BGSU had voted unanimously to remove Gish’s name from the theater. In a statement from the university, it was noted that a task force had been put together to investigate the matter, and determined that Gish’s name on the theater contributed to “an intimidating, even hostile, educational environment.” The outcry from the film community was heard almost immediately, with the circulation of a letter titled “Lillian Gish: An Opportunity for Fairness and Justice” and signed by over 50 artists and historians including Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, and James Earl Jones, in support of restoring Gish’s name to the theater. In response, BGSU has said that they will not consider restoring her name.

The university has also hypocritically stated that it has no plans to return the endowment left by Gish, nor to return the memorabilia that she donated. If the very sight of Gish’s name is so offensive to them that they feel it needs to be erased, then how can they justify continuing to benefit from the financial and archival donations that she left to them? There is a double injustice here, as the Gish Theater was named to honor not only Lillian but also Dorothy Gish, who had absolutely no connection to The Birth of a Nation whatever.

This decision to remove Gish’s name from the very theater that was created to honor her and her sister’s legacy is all too typical of the trend of judging people and works of the past from our “enlightened” 21st century perspective. The controversy over The Birth of a Nation is as old as the film itself, so why did the university see no issue with honoring Lillian Gish in 1976, but today, decides that her name must be erased for the well-being of the student body? What has changed in the culture that we can no longer separate out the considerable artistic accomplishments of one of our finest actors from a single film that she appeared in, early in her career?

The report released by Bowling Green State University argues that Gish’s role is central to The Birth of a Nation, and that despite her 118 other screen appearances, her career is “defined” by her role in that one film. This seems a highly tenuous assertion by which to justify the decision to punish her on that basis alone. In a contradictory statement, the report also states (somewhat awkwardly) that “her career and contributions to film history should be judged based on the entirety of her career”. The task force also concluded that, even though the Gish sisters “do not appear to have been advocates for racist or exclusionary practices or perspectives”, Lillian Gish apparently did not sufficiently denounce The Birth of a Nation in her lifetime. And the efforts to draw connections between Gish’s role in the film and the ideal “Aryan woman” of the current White Supremacist movement’s “14 Words” seem especially questionable. At least the report is honest about the ignorance of many who condemn The Birth of a Nation without having seen it, stating that “Many today have not seen the film, and therefore the image of Lillian Gish in it may not be context enough.”

There is no doubt today that The Birth of a Nation is, despite its artistic and cultural significance, a deeply troubling film for the racial views it espouses, particularly the extremely vicious caricatures of African Americans and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. These aspects were so explosive even in 1915 that it really is impossible to defend it merely as a product of its time, though it did reflect the racial attitudes held by many Americans, and a particular view of post-Civil War, Reconstruction-era history that was widely accepted then, even if it has been discredited today.

It is, however, possible to defend the importance of studying and watching The Birth of a Nation today for its significance in the art of film technique, its impact as a cultural phenomenon on the burgeoning American film industry, and as a reflection of historical attitudes toward a particular era of American history as viewed from the perspective of the early 20th century. If it had merely been a racist film of no artistic merit, it would likely be forgotten today, if it survived at all. The fact that it is still the subject of such intense debate more than a century later demonstrates its power as work of art – even if it is a deeply problematic one.

None of that, however, should have any bearing on the decision to honor Lillian Gish and her contributions to the art form in which she made a significant, lasting impact. Should she be punished retroactively – more than 25 years after her death, and more than 100 years after the release of The Birth of a Nation – for having appeared in one film, even if we rightly abhor that film’s racial politics?

In all of this, some may see Gish as a victim of political correctness run amok, or misguided efforts at historical revisionism. However, rather than view her as a “victim” of this unfortunate historical shortsightedness, we should continue to celebrate her accomplishments by enjoying her many great performances that have been recorded on film for posterity. Gish’s considerable body of work speaks for itself, and it is quite likely her legacy will survive such attempts to tear it down.

Bowling Green State University’s task force concludes its report by stating that, as an institution of higher education, the university “has a primary responsibility to its students and an overriding obligation to create an inclusive learning environment.” Instead, by their actions, the university has worked against that very obligation, choosing to erase Gish’s name and shut down further discussion of her artistic legacy, rather than using this as an opportunity to educate students on why Lillian Gish was deemed worthy of being honored by the university in the first place.

About Matt Barry

Matt Barry is a film historian, educator, and filmmaker living in Baltimore, MD.

5 comments

  1. This is a superb piece of writing that expresses everything I feel about this situation. BRAVO and grateful thanks to Matt Barry for composing it. I dare say that those responsible for the “dissing” of Ms. Gish will be proven on the wrong side of history.

  2. It is my understanding that the students in the BSU DID NOT screen Birth of a Nation but the documentary “Thirteen”, which began the fury. Miss Gish’s legacy became collateral damage. With the guide of the facility, they “connected the dots to Miss Gish” and made her legacy the scapegoat.

    I was named in the “task force” but in NO WAY condoned or supported the University’s actions.
    I was given a short Skype interview with members of the BSU and committee. I prepared for the meeting for days. The first question I had was, “Who watched (all 3 hours of) Birth of a Nation?” EVERY SINGLE person – including the faculty, looked down. NONE of them had even SEEN the film that they were protesting!

    This is a grave failure of the Bowling Green State University and its faculty and administration. They are tarnishing the school’s legacy.

    I have served as the Los Angeles Chapter BGSU Alumni Chapter Leader since 1996. Last Fall, I was awarded the (first ever) Network Chapter Leader of the Year. The Los Angeles Chapter confronted the President in February. He basically said it was a done deal. They gave me an obligatory meeting with the committee and then misrepresented me in the “Task Force” findings. They made it sound as if I was supporting their decision, which I was not.

    Be happy to speak with you further on this issue. It is a disgrace and I am embarrassed by the University that I have supported and represented for many years.

  3. I can only hope that this article will start a conversation with in the film community in particular as well as the general population, as to the application of 21st century cultural standards to past works of art. No art or artist” will go down in history”, because there won’t be any history. The rear view mirror of the past will be blinded by the light of ignorance.

  4. Terrific piece detailing this idiocy. Good work.

  5. Mr. Barry:

    Thank you for your article. I am a Bowling Green graduate with thirty years’ experience in business communications, primarily what were once known as “industrial films”. Recently, I have begun directing documentaries, releasing a profile of an African-American blues musician earlier this year.

    I am humiliated and disappointed in my alma mater’s decision in this matter. When the worthiness of name of the theater was initially raised, I was pleased to see minority students exploring the complex relationship of Birth Of A Nation to its stars and filmmaking of the last century. The situation was a great learning opportunity for young activists, and surely would result, I thought, in a clearer understanding of how to investigate and debate such issues.

    I was wholly wrong and completely disappointed. Instead of opening deep discussion and asking more questions, BGSU students were quoted as saying they not only never saw the offending movie but couldn’t be expected to do so. Others claimed that Lillian Gish’s name above the door was as intimidating as a confederate officer statue in the yard of courthouse. The University, based on what has been called a weak, quickly assembled report, said by local reporters to be guilty of lies of omission, gave the Black Student Union all they wanted without pause. The lesson learned is that public outcries don’t necessarily need to be weighed thoughtfully or academically. Threats will get you what you want, so threats are all you need. The university’s responses to arguments against this decision are just as weak as the decision to keep Lillian’s gifts is cheap. I don’t believe Bowling Green has ever sunk so low or compromised their educational mission so completely.

    I hope that none of my fellow BGSU alum filmmakers ever screens their work on campus or contributes time or money to university film education again, at least not until such time as the names of both Gish sisters are restored to the theater. Barring that, BGSU should abandon all film and video education and close the theater for good.

    Bowling Green State University, which once offered so much to young film and television professionals, no longer deserves to be any part of the filmmaking profession.

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