George Siegmann, Ralph Lewis, Lillian Gish, and Henry B. Walthall in D. W. Griffith’s The Delivery of a Nation. Public domain screenshot courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Those who affect a superior angle toward an awesome artist corresponding to Lillian Gish aren’t only 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, stop watching their movies, reading their books, viewing their paintings, or listening to their music, we could have little art remaining.”
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In 1983-84, while I was writing The American Movie Institute Salute to Lillian Gish for CBS-TV with producer George Stevens Jr., I had the privilege of traveling 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 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 delivery 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 within 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, particularly film.
So it was with mingled disbelief and outrage that I read that Lillian Gish is the newest victim of our curse of “political correctness” run amok. The trustees of Bowling Inexperienced State College in her native Ohio selected Might 3 to strip her identify from its Gish Movie Theater within the Scholar Union as a result of 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 films. The college gave Lillian Gish an honorary diploma and had no drawback proudly honoring her extraordinary legacy until protests by the Black Scholar Union over her participation in Start led the college to forged her into the netherworld for representing what it calls the movie’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 ought to be a place where the historical past of the arts is studied with care and perspective and the talk over artists’ legacies must be allowed to flourish, fairly than a spot the place, as too typically occurs at this time, we try to obliterate from consciousness the controversial features of our troubled historical past.
Yes, The Delivery of a Nation is a deplorable movie, racist to its core, a full-hearted paean to the Ku Klux Klan made by an unreconstructed Kentuckian whose father had been a Confederate colonel. This appalling movie provoked riots and helped result in a resurgence of the Klan. And but additionally it is acknowledged as a landmark in movie history, an incredible advance within the artwork of cinematic narrative storytelling. One of many many disturbing paradoxes of our nationwide history 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 shouldn’t be 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 part as a Klansman, even when that’s solely a footnote in Ford’s long and wealthy filmmaking profession. I’m wondering if Tarantino also thinks the actors who performed Klansmen in his Django Unchained are racists.
For all her brilliance as an actress, Gish by no means fairly seemed to know the social points surrounding Start. She made excuses for Griffith, claiming he was not likely a racist and providing a number of the similar sorts of tone-deaf, patronizing apologies he additionally made. However both additionally felt the need to make amends by filming Intolerance, Griffith’s 1916 epic through which Gish performs the symbolic Mom rocking the cradle of history, and by making the 1919 Damaged Blossoms, an interracial love story between Gish’s British waif and a Chinese language man (that film additionally predictably comes beneath attack in the present day 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 Damaged Blossoms, the delicate trade of emotions between the two gamers would defy the art of the greatest novelist”).
But somewhat than behave like ostriches and fake The Start of a Nation doesn’t exist, or symbolically banish one among its leading actresses, why can’t we research the film and face its implications squarely and intelligently? Should 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 labor all the time to reside as much as our modern requirements? It’s no protection to say that “everybody” was racist back in 1915, which was removed from the case, although President Woodrow Wilson himself was a flagrant racist and hosted a screening of Start at the White Home within the presence of Griffith and Gish. The NAACP and lots of political and inventive figures deplored the film from the beginning, and for many filmmakers it stays a trigger celebre, notably Spike Lee, who judiciously skewers it in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman.
It might appear ironic, but more precisely is an indication of his sophistication, that Lee in 2013 accepted the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize from the Gish Prize Trust for “his brilliance and unwavering braveness in utilizing movie to problem 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 crucial movies that impacted me while I used to be learning at NYU starred Miss Lillian Gish. These films have been D. W. Griffith’s The Start of a Nation and Charles Laughton’s The Night time of the Hunter. Isn’t it humorous (typically) how life works? And how ironic life may be? God could 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 Clever, one of many DGA board members at the time and a past president of the guild, provoked an extra controversy when he advised me in a subsequent interview that he thought the guild was flawed to dishonor Griffith and had overreacted to strain. (Bowling Inexperienced cited that DGA precedent as one in every of its justifications for stripping Gish’s identify from its theater.)
However it’s gone time to get beyond 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 guilty of social attitudes and actions we deplore. Beneath all this, I detect not so much a critical want to confront our previous in a nuanced, thoughtful means as much as a myopic form of self-congratulation. How a lot wiser and extra tolerant are we at this time! Certainly, we might never be responsible of creating a film that offends any specific group! However how will a few of our films of 2019 look to audiences a hundred years from now? We will solely think about how benighted many will appear. The much-maligned black comedian Stepin Fetchit, a star in the 1930s, advised me in 1970 that “Hollywood was extra segregated than Georgia underneath the skin,” and issues have not gotten a lot better in Hollywood or, certainly, in our country at giant, the place our current president indulges white supremacist ideology.
A columnist for the Toledo Blade, Kirk Baird, made the novel suggestion that quite than the college taking the action it did, “somewhat than stoking the flames of controversy with weak-willed capitulation and disrespect for context,” Bowling Inexperienced should have “expanded the dialogue into a teachable second.” Then it might have “lived as much as the university’s charge to teach the students by way of analytical considering, and to problem typical wisdom in addition to personal beliefs.” Baird proposed that the college should have provided “free screenings of the numerous work from Gish’s substantial oeuvre, which included The Delivery of a Nation, followed by dialogue from college movie professors, popular culture specialists, and historians and an viewers Q&A.”
Perhaps it isn’t too late for that to happen, and other people to rethink their rash actions as Robert Sensible as soon as did, however schooling increasingly is just not what our beleaguered instructional system is about anymore. Those that affect a superior angle towards an incredible artist resembling Lillian Gish are usually not solely unaware of our cultural heritage but stubbornly unaware that art often comes from deeply imperfect individuals. If we are to strip the names of every flawed artist from public buildings, cease watching their films, reading their books, viewing their work, or listening to their music, we could have little art remaining. I think that is truly the aim of our PC Police. They are basically anti-art. For art is inherently disturbing. It could possibly and will have the power to shake us up, make us query our preconceptions, make us reevaluate the place we have now been, how far we have now come, and how far we still have to go.