The “First Lady of American Cinema” Lillian Gish has had her name removed from a university theater and it’s not sitting well with many movie buffs. More than 50 film industry leaders ranging from Martin Scorsese to Helen Mirren to James Earl Jones are protesting the decision of Ohio’s Bowling Green State University to remove the name of actress Lillian Gish from a campus theater because she appeared in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
The letter accuses the university of making “a scapegoat in a broader political debate.” Lillian Gish is considered a pioneer of film acting. Her career spanned 75 years, beginning in 1912 in silent film shorts. The Whales of August in 1987 was her last film. She was called the First Lady of American Cinema, and for more than 40 years, the theater at Bowling Green has honored Ohio-born actresses Dorothy and Lillian Gish with its name.
That changed after students said they were upset that Lillian Gish appeared in The Birth of a Nation in 1915, a D.W. Griffith 3-hour silent movie that includes the Ku Klux Klan in what many claim to be a positive light.
In February, Bowling Green State University President Rodney Rogers released a statement on the building name hours before welcoming Black Lives Matter movement co-founder Opal Tometi, the leading key speaker for the university’s third annual “Beyond The Dream” series celebrating diversity and inclusion, according to the Toledo Blade. In his statement, Rogers said the administration was approached by Black Student Union leaders regarding “the propriety of the naming” of the theater.
A subsequent task force released a report finding the Gish name and associated Birth of a Nation displays “contribute to an intimidating, even hostile, educational environment.” Now prominent film artists, historians, actors and directors are petitioning Bowling Green State to restore the theater’s name.
The petition, created by The Whales of August producer Mike Kaplan, calls the removal of the Gish sisters’ names “unfortunate and unjust,” according to a story in USA Today. Dorothy Gish, Lillian’s sister and the theater’s other namesake, was an actor as well, but did not act in The Birth of a Nation. The Gish sisters were born in Springfield, Ohio.
While the letter acknowledges the racism of The Birth of a Nation, Kaplan writes that “Lillian was no racist,” and notes that she went on to star in more inclusive films. The letter also argues that Lillian Gish’s contributions to film outweigh her starring role in the controversial film. However, the college had already made the point that while Gish was perhaps not a racist she still had to pay a price for her association with the film.
In its report, the college said that while the Gish sisters “do not appear to have been advocates for racist or exclusionary practices or perspectives,” the content and historical impact of an actor’s work should be taken into account, said the Toledo Blade. “The task force also stated it could not find documentation that Lillian Gish ever denounced the themes of the film or distanced herself from the director or his views.”Rogers reportedly praised the careful consideration of the task force of students, faculty, and staff, chaired by College of Arts and Sciences Dean Ray Craig.
Check out Lillian Gish in The Birth of a Nation here:
The film industry leaders said, “For a university to dishonor her by singling out just one film, however offensive it is, is 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 letter states in part.
Among those signing the letter calling for the restoration of the Gish Theater name are James Earl Jones, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese, George Stevens Jr., Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph McBride, Malcolm McDowell, Lauren Hutton, Larry Jackson, and Joe Dante.
In response, Bowling Green State has said it will not reverse its decision to remove the theater’s name, and that its duty to the best interest of an inclusive environment “outweighs the University’s small part in honoring the Gish sisters’ legacy.”
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com