SPOILER WARNING !!!, this material is related to the attack that targeted Miss Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, their reputation and memory.
By William M. Drew
I am writing you to express my concern about an attempt to remove the names of the Gish sisters from a campus theater in Ohio as a consequence of the constant, non-stop demonization of D. W. Griffith over “The Birth of a Nation.” I am hoping that, by alerting you to this, you might be able to get the word to others in the academic community seriously committed to the study and appreciation of film art. Perhaps this can lead to a coordinated protest so that this effort will not succeed.
What has happened is as follows. Back in 1976 when the United States was still a democracy, people at Bowling Green State University, Ohio decided to name a campus theater after Ohio native daughter Lillian Gish. Lillian refused the honor unless it also included her sister Dorothy so they then named it the Gish Film Theater with which Lillian was quite happy. The theater was in operation for many years and Dr. Ralph H. Wolfe put together a collection of memorabilia associated with the Gishes which was on display there. As the theater was in need of renovation by 2016, however, it was felt its function, including the name, should be transferred to another location.
Eventually, they found what they felt was an ideal campus location for the Gish Film Theater–a building that is also used by the students union. So in January of this year, 2019, the Gish Film Theater reopened at its new site in a dedication hosted by Eva Marie Saint, now 94 and a longtime friend of Lillian Gish, who had come all the way to the university for this special event.
Soon after, however, campus activists led by the Black Students Union began demanding that the name of Gish be dropped from the theater because Lillian had played the leading feminine role in “The Birth of a Nation.” They claimed that the reason they had not objected to the Gish name being attached to the theater previously is because it was in a much less visible, almost hidden part of the campus than it is now. Pressure has continued to mount and the university president says he will render a decision on whether the Gish name stays or is removed in May.
As the saying goes, we’ve seen this movie before. In 1998, 21 years ago, there was a similar controversy on another college campus, Northern Kentucky University in Covington, over Red Grooms’ sculptures of D. W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer filming Lillian Gish on the ice in “Way Down East.” The sculptures had occupied a prominent situation on the campus since being placed there in 1979. For years, they brightened the otherwise dreary-looking campus without any controversy. But with Griffith’s reputation beginning to disintegrate in the 1990s as more and more attacks were launched against him in the media, perhaps it was inevitable that this would have an adverse effect on any monument or memorial to him even if, as in this case, it had nothing whatever to do with “The Birth of a Nation.” With students and academics demanding that NKU get rid of this monument to a “racist” filmmaker, the college administrators bowed to their demands and the sculptures were removed and then dismantled.
With this perhaps as a precedent, the following year in December 1999 Griffith’s name was removed from the Lifetime Achievement Award that the Director’s Guild of America had been giving to outstanding filmmakers since 1953. The Guild said that they were doing so because Griffith had perpetrated “intolerable racial stereotypes” in his films. Unlike the NKU controversy which attracted little attention outside the northern Kentucky/southern Ohio region, the DGA’s decision was widely reported, eliciting a variety of comment, pro and con. In the ensuing years, while the denunciations of Griffith over “The Birth of a Nation” have never ceased and with very little attention paid to his other works, there have not been similar efforts to dishonor him publicly for the simple reason that there are few memorials of any kind to commemorate his existence. There are no other awards bearing his name, no grand museum honoring his life and work, no cities and parks named after him nor theaters, either, no towering statues of him. It seemed that all those who had come to despise him could do was continue writing and producing vitriolic books, articles and documentaries about him in which he was forever blamed for just about all of America’s racial problems.
Now that the Gishes are being targeted, I suppose I should utter that old cliche that I’m not surprised. But actually I am. For example, there is the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize established by provisions in Lillian’s will to reward worthy artists. One of its more recent recipients was none other than Spike Lee who had no objections at all to receiving an award bearing the name of the actress who played Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation.”
With no apparent controversy over this prestigious award and with numerous film critics and historians continuing to bestow on Lillian Gish the praise that they now generally withhold from Griffith who is more often than not reviled these days, I had actually thought she was immune to this kind of attack. But since the few memorials to the director have long since vanished, it is evidently Lillian’s turn to be denounced and dishonored as a surrogate for Griffith. And if they succeed in removing any honors to Lillian and sister Dorothy who, unlike Lillian, was not in “The Birth of a Nation,” will they then target Mary Pickford who was not in “The Birth of a Nation,” either, but who also did indeed work for Griffith?
I don’t think it is hyperbole to observe that what we are seeing these days with all the attacks on memorials to iconic historical figures is an American equivalent of the Cultural Revolution that decimated China’s civilization in the 1960s and with much the same stated objective. While this kind of frenzy scarcely began amidst the meltdown caused by the disgraceful and incompetent administration of Donald J. Trump as witness the earlier anti-Griffith agitation of the late 1990s, there is no question that his repellent antics have only intensified the madness of the so-called resistance. If unchecked, it could spread to many other outstanding cultural figures, not only in cinema but in the older arts as well.
Mark Twain could come under fire, not for “Huck Finn” but for “Tom Sawyer” due to the racially stereotyped character of Injun Joe. You could have activists running around Oakland demanding that the name of Jack London Square be changed because several of the writer’s statements seem racist to some. Not long ago I came across a college paper in which the “scholar” tried to argue that, based on passages in their works, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all racists or bigots. That this analyst appeared to be confusing the attitudes expressed by some of their characters with the personal views of the authors was clear enough to me. But in a time when critical thinking and reasoned debate has all but disappeared in this country and many other Western nations, this approach has become all too common.
I believe therefore that it is imperative for all those concerned with cinema art to express their opposition to this attempt to remove the Gish name from the theater. If this attempt by the professionally outraged is not halted in its tracks, it will simply encourage more and more such assaults on our cultural heritage. From a feminist standpoint, it effectively applies an “Adam’s rib” conception to both Gish sisters in which they are no more than projections of a now despised and much misunderstood male artist without any individuality or creativity of their own. In an era in which women’s voices and contributions are supposed to count, scapegoating Lillian and Dorothy Gish for a portrayal in just one film that was conceived, not by Griffith but by the crackpot writer Thomas Dixon, Jr., the only person connected with “The Birth of a Nation” who merits censure, is utterly ridiculous.
One of the high points of my viewing classic films was the time in 1995 when I witnessed a revival of “Way Down East” that proved electrifying in its emotional effect on the audience. The denunciation of the sexual double standard and the traditional male patriarchy elicited loud cheers and applause. I have never experienced such a response to any other film in all the years I attended theatrical screenings. It was this film that inspired those fighting for women’s rights all over the world including China in the 1920s where it proved enormously influential. But the continued attacks on Griffith which are now starting to engulf Lillian Gish as well have caused this to be almost completely forgotten.
I would very much appreciate it if you would consider contacting those of your colleagues in the film history field who conceivably could circulate a petition requesting that the name of the Gish Film Theater remain intact. If enough people sign it, I believe we might be able to prevent this effort at name change and public dishonor from going through.
“As a film historian who enjoyed a very nice correspondence with Lillian Gish over the years and who has written extensively about D. W. Griffith, I am very concerned about the current agitation at Bowling Green State University to drop the name of Gish from the Gish Film Theater as a result of the never-ending controversy over “The Birth of a Nation.” Sadly, given the past history of such incidents where this issue is concerned, it is likely that the university will give in to such pressures unless there is a strong enough counter-protest to defeat this attempt.
I have in mind getting up a petition that could be sent around for cinephiles and others concerned about the arts to sign. It could then be forwarded to the university president and if there are enough signatures on it, it might have the desired effect. I have other information about the Gishes, D. W. Griffith and many others from those years I will be happy to share with you. In the meantime, I am including in this e-mail a copy of a letter I’ve started sending out to film academics and others with a particular interest in this. It gives a background history for the situation that has now arisen.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you about this rather urgent matter soon. I will be very interested in any suggestions you may have.”
William M. Drew