George Siegmann, Ralph Lewis, Lillian Gish, and Henry B. Walthall in D. W. Griffith’s The Delivery of a Nation. Public area screenshot courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Those who have an effect on a superior angle towards a terrific artist similar to Lillian Gish are usually not only unaware of our cultural heritage but stubbornly unaware that art often comes from deeply imperfect individuals. If we’re to strip the names of each 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, whereas 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 films and tv packages in numerous archives. It was an exciting expertise to review the pioneering work of the lady long considered the best actress of the silent display; Gish’s movie profession, which can 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 within the silent days to the 1955 masterpiece The Night time of the Hunter. Her in depth work within the theater and tv maintained her unequalled requirements of deep emotion, humor, intelligence, grace, and integrity. Gish’s appearing is a beacon to point out us our humanity, and she was outspoken in the causes of common brotherhood and the preservation of our arts, particularly movie.
So it was with mingled disbelief and outrage that I learn that Lillian Gish is the newest victim of our curse of “political correctness” run amok. The trustees of Bowling Green State College in her native Ohio selected Might three to strip her identify from its Gish Film Theater in the Scholar Union because she was one of the stars of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic The Start of a Nation. The theater was named after her and her sister, Dorothy, who was also a star of silent movies. The college 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 university 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 assortment.)
A university must be a place where the historical past of the humanities is studied with care and perspective and the talk over artists’ legacies must be allowed to flourish, somewhat than a place the place, as too typically occurs at this time, we try to obliterate from awareness the controversial features of our troubled history.
Yes, 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 result in a resurgence of the Klan. And yet it’s also acknowledged as a landmark in film history, an awesome advance within the art of cinematic narrative storytelling. One of many many disturbing paradoxes of our national historical past is that inventive importance could 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 profession 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’s only a footnote in Ford’s long and wealthy filmmaking profession. 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 by no means 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 also made. But both also felt the necessity to make amends by filming Intolerance, Griffith’s 1916 epic during which Gish performs the symbolic Mother rocking the cradle of historical past, and by making the 1919 Damaged Blossoms, an interracial love story between Gish’s British waif and a Chinese language man (that movie additionally predictably comes underneath assault as we speak for having a white actor play the Asian position, 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”).
However somewhat 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 permanently marked anathema for a serious, deeply misguided career selection? Ought to we anticipate artists to be good human beings or their bodies of work all the time to stay up to our modern requirements? It’s no protection to say that “everyone” was racist again in 1915, which was removed from the case, although President Woodrow Wilson himself was a flagrant racist and hosted a screening of Delivery at the White House in the presence of Griffith and Gish. The NAACP and many political and inventive figures deplored the movie from the start, and for many filmmakers it stays a trigger celebre, notably Spike Lee, who judiciously skewers it in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman.
It might seem ironic, however more accurately is an indication of his sophistication, that Lee in 2013 accepted the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize from the Gish Prize Belief 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 stated on that event, “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 Administrators Guild of America in 1999 provoked an issue by eradicating Griffith’s identify from its profession achievement award. Director Robert Sensible, one of many DGA board members at the time and a past president of the guild, provoked an extra controversy when he informed me in a subsequent interview that he thought the guild was flawed to dishonor Griffith and had overreacted to strain. (Bowling Green cited that DGA precedent as one in every of its justifications for stripping Gish’s identify from its theater.)
Nevertheless it’s gone time to get past knee-jerk, grandstanding outrage over our belated discovery that some actor or director or author or composer as soon as (or perhaps greater than as soon as; perhaps even typically) was guilty of social attitudes and actions we deplore. Beneath all this, I detect not a lot a critical want to confront our previous in a nuanced, considerate approach as a lot as a myopic type of self-congratulation. How a lot wiser and more tolerant are we immediately! Certainly, we might never be responsible of creating a movie that offends any specific group! But how will a few of our movies of 2019 look to audiences 100 years from now? We will only think about how benighted many will appear. The much-maligned black comedian Stepin Fetchit, a star in the 1930s, informed me in 1970 that “Hollywood was more segregated than Georgia under the skin,” and things haven’t gotten a lot better in Hollywood or, indeed, in our country at giant, the place our present president indulges white supremacist ideology.
A columnist for the Toledo Blade, Kirk Baird, made the novel suggestion that slightly 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 might 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 ought to have provided “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 isn’t too late for that to occur, and individuals to reconsider their rash actions as Robert Sensible once did, however schooling more and more isn’t what our beleaguered instructional system is about anymore. Those who affect a superior angle towards a terrific artist resembling Lillian Gish will not be only unaware of our cultural heritage but stubbornly unaware that artwork often comes from deeply imperfect individuals. If we’re to strip the names of every flawed artist from public buildings, cease watching their movies, reading their books, viewing their paintings, or listening to their music, we could have little art remaining. I think that’s truly the objective of our PC Police. They are basically anti-art. For art is inherently disturbing. It could and should have the power to shake us up, make us query our preconceptions, make us reevaluate where we now have been, how far we’ve come, and how far we nonetheless have to go.