Actors, producers, and more call out Bowling Green State for changing theater name

Actors, writers, and others affiliated with the film industry criticized Bowling Green State University (BGSU) for renaming its theater building after students complained about actress Lillian Gish’s role in a 20th century silent film.

The decision stemmed from a university task force report, which was sparked by the school’s Black Student Union’s criticism of Gish’s role in “The Birth of a Nation,” a critically acclaimed movie depicting the U.S. Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), according to Bowling Green Independent News. The movie depicted male actors in black face and included negative portrayals of black people.

BGSU convened the task force in February to provide guidance to university administrators regarding the potential renaming of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theater. The task force’s report recommended the building be renamed and educational materials be displayed to show the contributions of Lillian Gish, who won an Honorary Oscar in 1971, to film as well as the history of the building itself. 

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While the task force acknowledged that neither of the Gish sisters appeared to be advocates of racist behavior, it described Lillian Gish’s participation in “The Birth of a Nation” “central, and thus her image evokes and embodies the racism explicit in [the film].”

“The reference to ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and the images of Lillian Gish in the display area outside the theater contribute to an intimidating, even hostile, educational environment,” the report says. “The display, with its oversize images and text, are prominent in a well-used space and evoke the film and its racist legacy.”

The college’s Board of Trustees decided in May to rename the building upon the recommendation of both the task force and the university president, Rodney Rogers.

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But dozens of actors, actresses, and others have signed a letter supporting the Gish sisters and criticizing the school’s decision to rename the theater building.

“This controversy detracts from the great legacy [Lillian] Gish left us in her extensive and varied career. For a university to dishonor her by singling out just one film, however offensive it is, is unfortunate and unjust,” the letter, written by Michael Kaplan, Lillian Gish’s last movie producer, states. “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.”

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“Griffith’s film takes an indefensible, racist approach to the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” the letter continues. “But as even the university admits in its task force report on the theater’s name, Lillian was no racist. 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, demonstrates her outspoken belief in universal brotherhood among races and nations.”

This letter was signed by prominent figures in Hollywood, including actress Helen Mirren, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and actor James Earl Jones.

In response, Bowling Green State University stated that the college “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.”

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“The decision was made following extensive input from students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the public.”

“The artistry and accomplishments of the Gish sisters are not lost on the University,” the school said. “The honorary degree the University awarded Lil[l]ian Gish, the scholarship in her name, and our archival collections of Gish memorabilia remain in place.”

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