I grieve for Lillian Gish.
In case you haven’t heard, recently an on-campus theater at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, WI, named after Lillian Gish removed her name from its name because, in 1915, she was featured in the D.W. Griffith silent film “The Birth of a Nation.”
Here’s a few salient facts about Lillian Gish and her involvement with that film: Gish did not write, produce or direct “Birth of a Nation”; she was just one of its cast members, a hired gun. When the film was made, Gish was all of 22 years old. Gish’s career on screen spanned 75 years. During her career, she appeared in over 100 films and television productions, “Nation” was just one of them.
Hence, Bowling Green’s recent actions have met with ample blowback. And rightfully so because while their actions do seem well intentioned, they come across as overzealous, misguided, sloppy and extreme. BGSU has made Gish culpable for something she wasn’t necessarily in charge of while also reducing her great legacy down to just one film appearance.
But, just as importantly, they are also attempting to rewrite history.
Granted, that film, “The Birth of a Nation,” with this sympathetic, even at times heroic, view of the KKK, and despite its profound influence on the art of modern-day filmmaking, has not, obviously, aged well. But, rather than “aging well,” the more vital point about the film is that is has simply aged.
At the time of “Birth of a Nation’s” release in 1915, although it was the subject of controversy and boycotts, called for by everyone from social reformer Jane Adams to Booker T. Washington to the NAACP, the film was also a major box office hit. In fact, it would be the film industry’s highest grossing film until 1939 when it was finally surpassed by “Gone With the Wind.”
So what does “Nation’s” original controversy and its initial success tell us? That either movie audiences at the time were a bunch of racists, or that many went to see the movie to judge it for themselves, or that the controversy surrounding the film was not so broadly felt as to affect its overall earning power. Or maybe all of the above?
Certainly all of it—from the boycotts to the box office—for the original film tells us something significant about the time in which it was made and released. And that’s something that actually needs to be remembered.
The controversy over “Nation,” if not so much Lillian Gish, reminds me of when I first saw the 1940s Columbia Pictures serial “Batman.”
As it was the very first time that the long-running Batman mythos made it onto any screen, the serial demands attention and remembrance--but it seldom gets it. Mainly because instead of fighting such well-known Bat-villains as The Riddler or The Joker, this Batman (and Robin) attempt to take down a Japanese saboteur by the name of Dr. Daka.
Throughout the 15-part series, Dr. Daka and his various henchmen are often portrayed as extreme ethnic stereotypes and even as grotesques. And the dialogue of both Batman and various other “good guy” characters from the film often use the term “Jap” and, yes, they use it as prerogative unto itself.
When I recently watched the “Batman” serial, from my comfty vantage point of 2019, these aforementioned images and words were jarring to hear, disturbing to see and even (as they say) quite cringe-worthy. But I also found them ultimately understandable and then forgivable.
Remember: this serial was produced in 1943. In 1943, the USA was at war with Japan. It was not a war of wills, not a war of words, not even a cold war. It was a full-on, bona fide, blood-and-guts WAR. That the group that we as a nation were battling were being depicted in a film as evil and even ridiculed seemed not so surprising nor that alarming in context. They were shown as “the enemy” because, at the time, they literally were the enemy.
Now, if that same sort of dialogue was included in a modern-day “Batman” film, then I have problem, then we have a problem.
Ideally, I suppose, one would have liked to have seen the “Batman” filmmakers of the 1940s avoid these sort of stereotypes entirely or at least convey a message that while we may hate what the Japanese did, we don’t hate who they are, or that while we are angry at their leaders we are not hateful towards the people, per se, but such a philosophical lesson seems like an awful lot to ask for or expect in a low-budget film series of 15-minute installments made for showing to a primarily kid and pre-teen audience on a Saturday afternoon.
A film from 1943 is going reflect the attitudes and opinions of 1943--as will one from 1915. The silver screen is not a time machine. And it’s fool-hearty and doomed to failure if we try to superimpose modern day norms onto something created decades ago. Asking for modern day attitudes in any old film is no more reasonable than inquiring why Dorothy just didn’t call back to Kansas on her cell phone or why Scarlett O’Hara just didn’t call an Uber to get back to Tara.
Some years ago, while researching a book on the great Chicago newspaperwoman Virginia Marmaduke, I was momentarily taken aback by the term “Negro” in some articles from the 1950s. That is until I realized that the term “African-American,” if it had even been coined, certainly had not entered regular use. And that the term “Negro,” at the time, was the vernacular. “Negro” then gave way to “Black” and “Black” gave way to “African-American.” Before I exit this mortal coil, yet another descriptor might enter the lexicon.
And when the new term arises, will we then attempt to erase all prior usages of the term “African American”?
Actually, I’m glad that we are always reinventing our terms and changing of working definition of what is and is not “offensive.” Our moving the goal post (so to speak) is evidence of our progression as a culture and as a people. Look! We can change.
But in our movement forward it is imperative that we not take a smug, self-satisfied view of the past. It is dangerous when one generation judges a past generation. And the attempts to censure or erase the work and existence of prior decades not only removes those early mile-markers from our history but destroys the important lessons that those works still have to teach us.
Ultimately, our assessment, our “take-away,” to some of the work of Lillian Gish (as well as that of Kate Smith and the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” for that matter) is to appreciate their great and timeless artistry while acknowledging that what was not inappropriate then is now. And aren’t we glad for it?