Should a great actress be judged because she starred in a racist film?
Our social justice warrior and “woke” atmospheres have all but destroyed the reputation of a few classics such as “Gone With The Wind” and D.W. Griffith‘s “The Birth of A Nation.” And so, not surprising at all to hear that there is now an attempt to cleanse from our collective memory silent star Lillian Gish, the lead actress of “Birth of a Nation” as well as, arguably, the greatest and most popular silent actress of all-time.
Yes, trustees from Bowling Green State University have decided to remove Gish’s name from the, originally called, Gish Film Theater because she starred in 1915’s incredibly racist “Birth of a Nation”. (Thanks for the heads up J.W.)
Thank God for people like Joseph McBride, a film historian, who went berserk hearing the news and posted an essay about the Gish shunning..
MassLive’s Ray Kelly is reporting that “more than 50 prominent artists, writers, and film scholars are calling for the restoration of Gish’s name to the BGSU theater. Among those signers: Martin Scorsese, James Earl Jones, Helen Mirren, George Stevens Jr., Malcolm McDowell, Lauren Hutton, Larry Jackson and Joe Dante.” Thank you to all of them for fighting the good fight.
McBride expressed some “mingled disbelief and outrage” after hearing that Gish has become “the latest victim of political correctness run amok.”
Will this controversy lead to heated debate? It won't, because you can't have a debate with people who think their moral and political philosophy justifies destroying and debasing cultural artifacts and institutions. It would be like trying to explain to the true believers in the Khmer Rouge why shutting down schools and libraries and forcing people to live on collective farms was a bad idea. If you think the backlash to this kind of sanctimonious posturing is bad now, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Film students are now being the primary judges for Scarlett O'Hara's and, really, film history’s fate. God help us all.
More from McBride:
“The Directors Guild of America in 1999 provoked a similar controversy by removing Griffith’s name from its career achievement award,” McBride reminds. “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) 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.
“It may seem ironic that in 2013 Spike Lee 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 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…”