Film & TV

Lillian Gish’s Genius Will Outlast Ava DuVernay and the Canon Wreckers

Lillian Gish in 1921 (Bain News Service/Library of Congress)
Instead of having the great actress’s name erased, students should see her in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.

Lillian Gish is considered America’s greatest film actress by most people who know anything about movie history. Gish was a key figure, acting in numerous classics from the silent era and into the 1980s. For members of the Black Student Union at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, Gish is a pariah. A victim of Millennial rewriting of inconvenient history, she has had her name removed from an on-campus theater.

After a screening of Ava DuVernay’s propaganda documentary 13th, about racism in the U.S. criminal-justice system, which cites as proof carelessly incorporated footage of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1916), featuring Gish, BGSU students sought Soviet-style revenge. Their poorly informed fervor cowed BGSU administrators even though Gish in her will endowed the college with her archives and an honorarium prize for arts. BGSU defended the censure and made lame excuses about “an inclusive learning environment.” Higher education sinks continuously lower in the dark age of political correctness.

No one at BGSU was educated about Gish’s eminence. Her worthiness was like a public statue of the unknown soldier; her commemoration should be the safekeeping of educators and cultural guardians who make sure that students and the public receive proper information about our cultural heritage.

So when I was asked to sign a petition objecting to Gish’s mistreatment, I agreed with its declaration. Punishing Gish is part of an ongoing series of cultural defamations that began in 1999 when the Directors Guild of America stripped D. W. Griffith’s name from its annual awards (soon followed by the National Board of Review). This showed complete disregard for Griffith’s significance to film form and to American cultural history.

Last week, producer-publicist Mike Kaplan and historian Joseph McBride released the petition signed by over 50 film-culture figures. “Only 50?” a friend asked. “What about the 50,000 who didn’t sign?” No outcry from Gish Prize recipients Laurie Anderson, Spike Lee, Bob Dylan, Suzan-Lori Parks, or Anna Deavere Smith.

If American art and political history were taught well and seen clearly, more names and voices would be raised in outrage. Gish deserved defense from every filmmaker and arts person in the country for the way she and Griffith distinguished human expression. They invented the expressive close-up, with its insight into psychology and memorable illustration of behavior. Gish is an integral part of America’s complex history. Understanding her work is not just a matter of being more sophisticated than DuVernay, who opportunistically misused The Birth of a Nation and spread disinformation; it’s also a matter of appreciating the moral density of human experience in art.

We see Gish’s extraordinary range as Southerner Elsie Stoneman, innocently caught up in the factional turmoil of The Birth of a Nation’s Civil War; Thomas Hardy’s updated American Tess embodying female delicacy and strength in Way Down East; her idealization with sister Dorothy Gish as siblings separated by warring forces of the French Revolution in Orphans of the Storm; a portrayal of romantic simplicity in True Heart Susie; her embodiment of American moral crisis as Hester in The Scarlet Letter; her ageless, mythic motherhood in Intolerance; and her sound-era roles as the feminine principle in Duel in the Sun; the fearless Christian matriarch in the expressionist Night of the Hunter; a realistic variation on that role in The Unforgiven; a modern confrontation with racist dictatorship in The Comedians; her complex characterization as the officious and repentant Miss Inch in The Cobweb; and finally her iconic girlish matriarch in Altman’s A Wedding.

Gish’s fierce and clear characterizations set out the possibilities for film acting and are matched by few other performers. This year marks the centenary of Broken Blossoms, one of her finest Griffith collaborations. It is also cinema’s premier examination of Western racism and global, which is to say spiritual, fellowship. This ecumenical love story between a Chinese immigrant (Richard Barthelmess) and a white girl child in London’s Limehouse slum district is a poem of contrasts — between cultures, sexes, and sensibilities. Gish’s fright when locked in a closet by her brutal father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), is the screen’s greatest moment of terror, and her adoration by the sensitive Chinese devotee turns sympathy to empathy. It is the greatest of all representation and identification movies and should be definitive proof of Griffith’s humane artistry, superseding The Birth of a Nation’s controversies.

But canon wreckers and propagandists such as DuVernay would deny Gish’s accomplishments, overturning rich history for tribal grievance and its handmaiden, ignorance. It’s unlikely that DuVernay’s fascist-influenced career will ever equal Gish’s or that her poorly educated followers will ever appreciate the difference. To tarnish a star of Gish’s genius diminishes us all. “It’s not dark yet,” sang Gish prize winner Bob Dylan, “but it’s getting there.”

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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