Bowling Green Students Want to Change Theatre Namesake Over Role in Racist Film

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News coming out of Ohio tooday,

The Black Student Union at an Ohio university is pushing the school’s president to rename a theatre honoring an actress who starred in “The Birth of a Nation,” considered one of the most racist movies ever made.

The Toledo Blade reports Bowling Green State University’s Gish Film Theater was named after actresses Dorothy and Lillian Gish 40 years ago.

Lillian Gish starred in the 1915 black-and-white silent film, which served as a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan and helped revive the white supremacist group.

Black Student Union President Kyron Smith says the push to rename the little-used theatre comes after its relocation to the student union.

University President Rodney Rogers says a task force of students, faculty and other stakeholders will make a recommendation for an immediate change.

So I can completely understand why the Black Student Union might feel this way. Having a facility on their campus named after someone associated with a racist film can evoke some painful and negative feelings. For anyone who has ever seen The Birth of a Nation, it is an infuriating film.

However, what I feel might be getting lost in all the furor, is the possible truth behind Gish’s participation in the film and ignoring everything else she did in her lifetime.

First of all, what should be considered is if Gish had any choice of appearing in the film at all. From what we know of the stringiness of early Hollywood contracts, it’s more than likely that her being in the film was apart of the deal she had signed with D.W. Griffith when she was 19 and she was going to be in that movie whether she wanted to or not. It should also be noted that The Birth of a Nation was one of six films Gish made in 1915 and one of 23 between 1914-1916.

I would absolutely support the removal of D.W. Griffith’s name from any theatre. He was the son of a Confederate solider, opposed Reconstruction and saw the rise of the Klan as potential for a great moment in cinematic history.

Also, if you want to take context of the film into account, her character Elsie doesn’t actually do anything racist. If anything, she’s repeatedly portrayed as a victim. If her character had been dressing in blackface, gleefully participated in a lynching or any other type of racist behavior, it would be an entirely different issue.

At the same time, consider why the theatre was named for her in the first place. Unlike statues of Confederate heroes, her tribute has everything to do with her contributions to acting and film as a whole.

Keep in mind this is the same actress that for Way Down East (1920), floated perilously down a river while perched on an ice floe, trailing her hand in the frigid water in order to make the situation even more impactful which resulted in permanent nerve damage. On the shoot of The Wind in the Mojave Desert, she insisted on the utmost authenticity, including filming in the midst of sandstorms; at one point she suffered third-degree burns on her hands from a car door handle which had become white hot in the blazing desert heat.

It would also be different if Gish was known to be a racist herself and support racist causes. But she didn’t or at least there is no record of it.

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After she died, she bequeathed the the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize which awards $250,000 annually to an individual who has “made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” Recent recipients include Suzan-Lori Parks, Bill T. Jones and Spike Lee.

And remember, this was one credit on a career that totaled over 100. Yes, she appeared in a racist film at the age of 22, but in the years that followed she also played Mimi and La Boheme and Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.

Should we be getting into to punishing or removing namesakes due to one shameful acting credit? If you feel that way, should the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center remove their namesake because she once appeared in yellowface in Dragon Seed? Should we demand that Julia Louis-Dreyfus give back her Mark Twain Prize because she appeared in Soul Man (where a character spends the entire movie in blackface) more than 30 years ago? Should we rename the Mark Twain Prize because of his usage of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn?

As a person of color and someone with common sense, I do believe there are actual issues with race in this country. I supported the tearing down of Confederate monuments. I believe that there is still massive marginalization of people of color on an everyday basis. I also know that this is the second time this year race has been heavily discussed on BGSU’s campus.

So I’m urging students at BGSU and their administrators to look at the entirity of Gish’s career and contributions. But if you feel that one likely contractually obligated credit in a racist film at the age of 22 is enough to strip her name off a theatre, I think that says more about you than it does Lillian Gish.