Gish starred in the 1915 silent film, which was adapted from a novel and play, The Clansman. It is considered a landmark of film history, with many firsts – first close-up, fade-outs, and the longest film made to that point. However, it is full of racist imagery and plot lines, and venerates the Ku Klux Klan, who ride in to save the day.
Students at Bowling Green requested the change. After a study, it was agreed to change the name.
But this week, such stars as James Earl Jones, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese and several leading film scholars released an open letter calling for Bowling Green to retain Gish’s name on the theater. She shared billing with her sister on the theater name. Both were Ohio natives, but not alumnae of the school.
Gish shouldn’t be judged by one of many films made over a long career, the letter states.
“[D. W.] Griffith’s film takes an indefensible, racist approach to the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. But as even the university admits in its task force report on the theater’s name, Lillian was no racist,” the letter said. “Her work in many films, such as Griffith’s own Intolerance (1916), a dazzling four-part overview of world history in which she plays the symbolic mother figure rocking the cradle of humanity and tolerance; Griffith’s deeply moving 1919 interracial drama Broken Blossoms; the 1955 masterpiece The Night of the Hunter, in which she plays a beatific protector of endangered children; and the 1967 film of Graham Greene’s The Comedians, in which she challenges Haiti’s dreaded secret police and demonstrates her outspoken belief in universal brotherhood among races and nations.”
The letter calls the removal “unfortunate and unjust. Doing so makes her a scapegoat in a broader political debate. A university should be a bastion of free speech. This is a supreme ‘teachable moment’ if it can be handled with a more nuanced sense of history.”
The university pushed back, quoting Gish from a 1983 interview with a Bowling Green publication. “Lillian Gish talked about actors being accountable for the roles they choose: ‘I feel strongly that actors and actresses today need to take responsibility for what they say and do in film, even if they are only acting. They don’t have to do the script … Film is the most powerful thing that has been invented in this century.'”
“Upon reviewing the totality of Lillian Gish’s acting career, no evidence was found that she denounced or distanced herself from director D. W. Griffith or her link from the film The Birth of a Nation.”
Bowling Green claimed that campus leaders have decided that Gish’s connection to the film sent a hostile message to some students.
“Bowling Green State University has a primary responsibility to serve its students, faculty and staff, and an obligation to create an inclusive learning environment. That obligation outweighs the university’s small part in honoring the Gish sisters’ legacy,” the statement said.
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