George Siegmann, Ralph Lewis, Lillian Gish, and Henry B. Walthall in D. W. Griffith’s The Start of a Nation. Public area screenshot courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Those that affect a superior angle towards an incredible artist corresponding to Lillian Gish are usually not solely unaware of our cultural heritage however stubbornly unaware that art often comes from deeply imperfect individuals. If we are to strip the names of every flawed artist from public buildings, stop watching their movies, reading their books, viewing their work, or listening to their music, we could 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 touring the nation to see nearly all of Miss Gish’s surviving movies and tv packages in numerous archives. It was an exciting expertise to review the pioneering work of the lady lengthy considered the greatest actress of the silent display; Gish’s film career, which can never be equaled, lasted from 1912 to 1987. As our host, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., put it, “She was there at the start of an artwork type.”
Her many nice movies vary from Broken Blossoms, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind in the silent days to the 1955 masterpiece The Night time of the Hunter. Her in depth work in the theater and tv maintained her unequalled standards of deep emotion, humor, intelligence, grace, and integrity. Gish’s appearing is a beacon to point out us our humanity, and she or he was outspoken within the causes of common 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 newest sufferer of our curse of “political correctness” run amok. The trustees of Bowling Green State University in her native Ohio selected Might 3 to strip her identify from its Gish Movie Theater in the Scholar Union as a result of she was one of the stars of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic The Delivery of a Nation. The theater was named after her and her sister, Dorothy, who was also a star of silent movies. The university gave Lillian Gish an honorary degree and had no drawback proudly honoring her extraordinary legacy until protests by the Black Scholar Union over her participation in Delivery led the college to forged her into the netherworld for representing what it calls the film’s “face of Aryanism.” (Hypocritically, the university has no plans to offer away Gish’s bequest for an endowment and scholarship program or her archival collection.)
A college ought to be a place where the history of the arts is studied with care and perspective and the talk over artists’ legacies ought to be allowed to flourish, quite than a place the place, as too typically occurs at the moment, we try to obliterate from awareness the controversial features of our troubled historical past.
Sure, The Delivery 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 Accomplice colonel. This appalling film provoked riots and helped lead to a resurgence of the Klan. And but additionally it is acknowledged as a landmark in movie historical past, an incredible advance in the art of cinematic narrative storytelling. One of many many disturbing paradoxes of our nationwide historical past is that inventive importance might be linked to the repugnant ideology of slavery and white supremacy.
Gish participated wholeheartedly in Start and took an lively position in Griffith’s filmmaking career and sustaining his legacy. Questioning her involvement isn’t as absurd as the best way John Ford, the longer term director who was then an actor, stuntman, and crew member, has been denounced as a racist by Quentin Tarantino for enjoying a bit half as a Klansman, even if that is solely a footnote in Ford’s long and rich filmmaking career. I’m wondering if Tarantino additionally thinks the actors who performed Klansmen in his Django Unchained are racists.
For all her brilliance as an actress, Gish never quite seemed to know the social points surrounding Start. She made excuses for Griffith, claiming he was not likely a racist and offering a few of the similar sorts of tone-deaf, patronizing apologies he additionally made. However each additionally felt the need to make amends by filming Intolerance, Griffith’s 1916 epic during which Gish performs the symbolic Mom rocking the cradle of history, and by making the 1919 Broken Blossoms, an interracial love story between Gish’s British waif and a Chinese language man (that film additionally predictably comes beneath attack at this time for having a white actor play the Asian position, even when, as Andrew Sarris wrote in The American Cinema, “When Richard Barthelmess first confronts Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, the delicate change of emotions between the 2 gamers would defy the artwork of the greatest novelist”).
However relatively than behave like ostriches and fake The Delivery of a Nation doesn’t exist, or symbolically banish certainly one of its main actresses, why can’t we research the movie and face its implications squarely and intelligently? Ought to an actor, nevertheless illustrious, be completely marked anathema for a serious, deeply misguided career selection? Should we anticipate artists to be good human beings or their our bodies of work all the time to stay up to our modern standards? It’s no protection to say that “everyone” was racist back in 1915, which was removed from the case, though President Woodrow Wilson himself was a flagrant racist and hosted a screening of Delivery on the White House in the presence of Griffith and Gish. The NAACP and lots of political and inventive figures deplored the film from the start, and for many filmmakers it stays a trigger celebre, notably Spike Lee, who judiciously skewers it in his 2018 movie BlacKkKlansman.
It might seem ironic, however 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 utilizing movie to challenge typical considering, and for the eagerness for justice that he feels deep in his soul.” Lee stated on that occasion, “Would you consider, two of an important movies that impacted me whereas I was learning at NYU starred Miss Lillian Gish. Those films have been D. W. Griffith’s The Delivery of a Nation and Charles Laughton’s The Night time of the Hunter. Isn’t it humorous (typically) how life works? And the way ironic life could be? God could be a trickster. Peace and like to the Gish Sisters. . . .”
The Administrators Guild of America in 1999 provoked an issue by eradicating Griffith’s identify from its profession achievement award. Director Robert Clever, one of many DGA board members on the time and a previous president of the guild, provoked an extra controversy when he advised me in a subsequent interview that he thought the guild was fallacious to dishonor Griffith and had overreacted to strain. (Bowling Green cited that DGA precedent as certainly one of its justifications for stripping Gish’s identify from its theater.)
However it’s gone time to get past knee-jerk, grandstanding outrage over our belated discovery that some actor or director or writer or composer once (or perhaps greater than once; perhaps even typically) was responsible of social attitudes and actions we deplore. Underneath all this, I detect not a lot a critical want to confront our previous in a nuanced, thoughtful method as much as a myopic form of self-congratulation. How a lot wiser and extra tolerant are we at present! Certainly, we might by no means be responsible of creating a film that offends any specific group! However how will a few of our movies of 2019 look to audiences a hundred years from now? We will solely imagine how benighted many will appear. The much-maligned black comic Stepin Fetchit, a star in the 1930s, advised me in 1970 that “Hollywood was more segregated than Georgia underneath the pores and skin,” and issues haven’t gotten a lot better in Hollywood or, certainly, in our country at giant, where our present president indulges white supremacist ideology.
A columnist for the Toledo Blade, Kirk Baird, made the novel suggestion that fairly than the university taking the action it did, “somewhat than stoking the flames of controversy with weak-willed capitulation and disrespect for context,” Bowling Green should have “expanded the discussion into a teachable second.” Then it might have “lived as much as the college’s cost to teach the students via analytical considering, and to challenge typical knowledge as well as personal beliefs.” Baird proposed that the university should have provided “free screenings of the significant work from Gish’s substantial oeuvre, which included The Start of a Nation, adopted by dialogue from university film professors, pop culture specialists, and historians and an audience Q&A.”
Maybe it isn’t too late for that to happen, and other people to reconsider their rash actions as Robert Sensible as soon as did, but schooling increasingly shouldn’t be what our beleaguered instructional system is about anymore. Those who have an effect on a superior angle toward a terrific artist comparable to Lillian Gish will not be solely unaware of our cultural heritage however stubbornly unaware that artwork often comes from deeply imperfect individuals. If we are to strip the names of each flawed artist from public buildings, cease watching their movies, reading their books, viewing their work, or listening to their music, we could have little art remaining. I think that’s truly the objective of our PC Police. They’re basically anti-art. For art is inherently disturbing. It may and will have the power to shake us up, make us question our preconceptions, make us reevaluate the place we now have been, how far we’ve got come, and the way far we still have to go.