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.
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.