Be Like Water: Film, Politics, Legacy

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2019, Volume 73, Number 1

Bruce Lee counseled: “Be water, my friend,” alternately translated as “Be like water.” The protests that engulfed Hong Kong in early summer drew inspiration from the great martial-arts star, as reported by columnist Nicolas Atkin. He detailed how Lee’s famous saying “has become a clarion call among the young protesters” and “inspired a new form of guerilla tactics … with protesters moving in unexpected waves, rolling from one spot to another.” At the same time, as Atkin reminded readers, Jackie Chan has become persona non grata among these same young people for his pro-Beijing politics, which have tarnished his reputation.1These days, Bruce Lee is a hero to the people of Hong Kong, his hometown, with signs and chants throughout the streets taking up his philosophy and his call. His status is a reminder never to underestimate the power of film and its figures to inspire political movements, even long after death, far into the future.

June 2019 (and July 1) were celebrated in Hong Kong with brave demonstrations against the government, while in the United States, parades marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. That “riot” occurred on June 27, 1969, on the day of Judy Garland’s funeral and burial at Ferncliff Cemetery. Garland, the gay saint, had died five days earlier and lay in state at Campbell’s Funeral Chapel uptown, where ten thousand paid their respects. The New York Times reported the next day that “legions of her fans maintained an ardent vigil in the hot and humid streets.”2 It took years for the stories to emerge that spelled out just how mourning had propelled her fans into that fateful confrontation—a massive street protest, Hong Kong–style, perhaps—that changed history.3


Be like water: Bruce Lee posters in Hong Kong.

Lillian Gish and Naming: Correction or Erasure

While Bruce Lee and Judy Garland have been tapped in support of a new generation’s progressive struggles, the opposite is true for silent-film star Lillian Gish, who was at the center of a fierce set of exchanges in articles and responses in early 2019. In the spring, a debate had taken place over the naming of the Gish Film Theater at Bowling Green State University. As usual, this sort of battle is almost never fought over the ideal subject but rather over the subject that presents itself at a pivotal moment.

In February 2019, members of the Black Student Union at Bowling Green had called for the name “Gish” to be removed from the university’s film theater, a name that dated back to 1976 on campus. Why? The university had recently relocated the theater: after four decades in an older building, it was moved to an existing theater space in the student union, described as “a central hub for students on campus,” and that space renamed the Gish Film Theater.4 To be clear: the action that was requested was not the stripping of a name but rather a refusal to allow a renaming. The students’ request that “their” theater not be given the name of Lillian Gish due to her lifelong association with D. W. Griffith’s notoriously racist The Birth of a Nation (1915) was initiated during Black History Month, on the eve of Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi’s arrival on campus as a keynote speaker for a series on diversity.5

The university took it all seriously, with a task force and internal debates. On May 3, the university’s trustees voted 7–0 to remove the Gish name. The Bowling Green administration stated: “We struggled with historical issues in today’s time and I think … that’s what universities are all about. … As a public university we engage in these discussions and debates. While not everyone will agree with this decision, I know, this is what makes strong democracy. We listen to each other, learn from each other and move forward.”6

And with that, the fomenting began. Directors, cinephiles, critics, and others of the 1960s–70s generation began to thunder their disapproval, notably with a signed letter to Bowling Green demanding that the Gish name be restored to the theater.7 In June, another stage of debate was signaled by an anguished editorial in Cineaste titled “Cancellation Culture.”8

The editorial took up the cudgel against BGSU and defended Gish with appeals to the sanctity of film history and tradition, and with outrage over the idea of revising history via “cancellation” tactics. Cineaste reveals the extent to which some forces in the field are intent on broadcasting a claim for the sanctity of normative film and television studies three decades or more after the theoretical and political impact of feminism, multiculturalism, queer culture, diasporic studies, and other such movements seemingly ejected them.


Bowling Green students outside the relocated Gish Film Theater, prior to its renaming as the BGSU Film Theater.

Pamela Hutchinson, writing in The Guardian, reminded readers that neither Lillian Gish nor D. W. Griffith himself were free of racist animus. “It’s undeniable that it was a personal film for Griffith; he came from a slaveholding family and his father, ‘Roaring Jake,’ was a Confederate officer.”9 Gish herself never disavowed the film, taking pride in her role in bringing the film to fruition for years to come.10 Her sister Dorothy became collateral damage in the BGSU fight, though; both had grown up in Ohio, and the theater was named for both.

Signs of the Times

Girish Shambu (FQ’s “Quorum” editor) took up the Cineaste editorial on his personal blog, shocked at its positions and at how it extended the debate into a defense of Woody Allen and attacks on #MeToo and Black Lives Matter alongside its defense of D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish—whose legacies, the editorial writers fear, are being erased. Shambu noted: “What is disturbing about such claims of erasure is not only that they are overblown. They are in fact insidious, because they represent a powerful pushback against any attempt by marginalized voices to call the film canon … to account.”11

In fact, Birth of a Nation has become a symbol that all the finger wagging in the world cannot undo: Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2017) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) both featured clips from the film (originally titled The Clansman), as well they should. It is crucial to recognize codes in order to protect society from injurious representations. Hutchinson suggests a stance that has much in common with Shambu’s warning: “With the rise of white supremacist groups in the United States, the time has come to face Griffith’s film and interrogate its legacy.”12

Context is crucial: in today’s era of brutal government suppression and full-frontal racism in the United States, film watching itself may become a form of citizenship, residency, and political engagement. Acceptance can be dangerous, as Shadow and Act’s Trey Mangum writes: “Although these projects may seem harmless to some, they are extremely dangerous and participate in violent rhetoric that continues to perpetuate white supremacy.”13 It is possible to acknowledge that Lillian Gish was a very fine and historically important actress, director, and writer, and at the same time recognize that her name and an exhibition detailing her early films were not appropriate additions to the university’s student union.

The Future of the Movies (Again?)

It is disappointing to see the New York Times dedicate the front page of its Arts and Leisure section to the story “Will the Movies Exist in 10 Years? Forecasting the Future of the Movie Business,” with a litany of fears, predictions, and bravado that is all too predictable.14 Too bad the NYT didn’t include James Schamus, who traced the endless scenario of doomsday predictions back a hundred years for FQ in 2018.15 Or Mattias Frey, who in in 2015 published The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism: The Anxiety of Authority on a parallel recurrent panic.

At IndieWire, Eric Kohn helpfully provided counterprogramming in the form of a roundup of responses from art-house exhibitors and distributors titled “Here’s How Movie Theaters Will Survive the Next 10 Years: Exhibitors Speak Out.” There, the Film at Lincoln Center’s head of programming, Dennis Lim, noted: “There is clearly something about cinema that brings out the doomsday rhetoric. How many times are the movies supposed to have died by now?” While the NYT blithely reinforced the prevailing cliché that film is over, Lim and others reported a rise in attendance and passionate audiences who turned out despite their use of home and hand deliverables: “Despite a few high-profile closures, the NYC repertory and art-house ecosystem is as healthy as ever, and in fact offers more, and more variety, than it did a decade or two ago.”16

Festival Culture: A Civic Debate

The Cannes and Venice film festivals have long been suitably targeted for the paucity of women directors (with other sins presumably waiting their turn in the wings). But Cannes in 2019 reportedly took a turn for the better. (See Rasha Salti’s article in this issue.) And Venice sprung a surprise: after angrily defending itself in 2018 against critics for its masculinist selections, Venice announced that its jury president for 2019 would be the great Lucrecia Martel—seen on the cover of the Summer 2018 issue of Film Quarterly. Martel is well known for her independent views, brilliant cinema, defense of abortion and indigenous rights, and for being a natural feminist: her presence as jury head could make a difference if there were more than two women directors in competition.

In the Netherlands, meanwhile, there is a new director for the renowned International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), the flagship event for global documentary. Orwa Nyrabia, a well-known Syrian producer based in Berlin, gave an interview to CineEuropa that outlined with utter clarity the things that need to change if IDFA, which he will lead for the first time in autumn 2019, is to remain successful.17 Any festival—or exhibition or journal—that is inclusive and in tune with the demands of its moment can nurture within its own culture the seeds of its future iteration. Nyrabia’s statement about the essence of IDFA and the documentary field is powerful:

We have to be an international team to make an international festival, and we are also getting very close to reaching a 50–50 gender balance in the team. The core of IDFA’s policy is now to be what we’re calling truly international. …

The strong presence of films made by northern filmmakers about the rest of the world is not enough any more. We know today that we can’t just be watching films about the Balkan war, about the Syrian war or about the Congo, without giving a serious platform and due respect to filmmakers from these societies. …

What we can add is also the civic debate that a film ignites. …

This extends to the filmmaking approach and themes as well. …

It’s not just about our image of the world; it’s about people’s own image of themselves as well. When we give a platform to people so that they can tell us what we don’t like to hear, this is not us being nice, smart and progressive; this is us surviving. The world really is that bad, and anybody who doesn’t want to say that may very well win an election, but this is not the core of documentary cinema.18

Roma, Roma, Roma: Opening the Public Imagination

It is always useful to have a case in point. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma graced the cover of the Summer 2019 issue of FQ, not only because of its clutch of awards or history-making Netflix release, but also because of the filmmaker’s embrace of a social mission—something often scorned by “creatives” in the pursuit of art and reputation. In this, Cuarón was aided and abetted by Participant Media, his producing partner, long known for pioneering collaborations throughout the production process straight through to release.

Perhaps it sounded like pie-in-the-sky Oscar bait when Cuarón, in interview after interview, announced that he wanted Roma to change the material conditions of the domestic workers he sought to honor with his portrait of the character Cleo in Roma. Certainly there was enough cynicism to go around, targeting the upper-middle-class director’s portrayal of his family’s maid.


Domestic workers celebrate their new legal rights granted by the Mexican Congress.

Once in a while, though, cynicism is unfounded. On December 5, 2018, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that domestic workers had to be enrolled in the country’s social security system, and in May 2019, the Mexican Congress unanimously passed a new law giving unprecedented rights to the country’s more than two million domestic workers, including a contract and minimum wage. True, Mexico has a new socialist president. Also true: nearly every article on the massive changes in laws for domestic workers name-checked Roma for bringing the issue into public view.

At the advertising world’s Cannes Lions Festival, Cuarón was on a panel with his producer, Participant Media’s David Linde, and their activist partner Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “It’s not that you insert social action into your strategy,” said Cuarón. “Social action is the strategy.”19

Participant Media has long forged these kinds of links to activism between film productions and activist organizations. Ai-jen Poo spoke about this strategy: “The film created this cultural moment, and our movement had already been planting seeds and moving legislation forward. The moment created more space in the public imagination for women we were trying to lift up,” she said. “We just opened that space and inserted solutions, and it propelled it forward because the space in the public imagination was open wide from an emotional place. It would have taken years for us to get to where we are now.”20


The spring of 2019 was cruel. Please take a moment to salute the greats that are recently departed. Here is the roster, in the order of their passing:

John Singleton (January 6, 1968–April 28, 2019), director, screenwriter, producer

Doris Day (April 23, 1922–May 13, 2019), actor

Camille Billops (August 12, 1933–June 1, 2019), filmmaker and archivist

Sylvia Miles (September 9, 1924–June 12, 2019), actor

Franco Zeffirelli (February 12, 1923–June 15, 2019), director, producer, Forza Italia senator

Suzan Pitt (July 11, 1943–June 16, 2019), animator, artist

Edith Scob (October 21, 1937 – June 26, 2019), actor

Ben Barenholtz (October 5, 1935–June 27, 2019), producer, exhibitor, distributor

In This Issue

Lisa Parks turns her attention to the representation of the digital in documentary. Not one to be seduced by the visualization of pure data, Parks pays close attention to The Cleaners, which documents the lives of those repeatedly left out of the picture: the global workforce that actually carries out the work. (No, it’s not all done by algorithms—yet.)

Melissa Hardie examines the premises and affective relationships that supply Can You Ever Forgive Me? with its emotional resonance. Placing Lee Israel in the context of her time and the social/sexual mores that governed her life, Hardie detects how objects acquire sentiment in this battle between fraud and authenticity.

Manuel Betancourt focuses on Monos to consider the representation of the guerrillero in contemporary Colombian cinema. He notes that the long-time presence of the narco and sicario is finally being augmented by this missing link, just as a fragile peace offers a bit of hope.

J. M. Tyree introduces FQ readers to the work of Richard Billingham, British photographer and sometime filmmaker, and to Ray & Liz, his remarkable “cine-memoir” of his working-class family. Spotting the film as a revival of the British tradition of miserabilism, Tyree parses the tradition and Billingham’s powerful contribution.

Despina Kakoudaki reflects on Game of Thrones, reading back from its conclusion to consider the startling absence of ecology in its multiple power struggles and disasters. She reads the series in the context of fantasy fiction and its assumptions, directing attention to the ways in which “Winter” in Westeros gestures toward but does not signify a season after all.

Also in this issue: Diana Flores Ruiz interviews filmmakers Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera on the occasion of the premiere of their important feature, The Infiltrators. It interweaves a documentary about the “dreamers” who enter detention centers to advocate for imprisoned immigrants with enactments drawn from their memories, breaking new ground. (Horrifyingly, Claudio Rojas, one of the central figures in the film, was abruptly deported by ICE on the eve of the film’s premiere at the Miami Film Festival.21)

In columns: Paul Julian Smith reports from Mexico on new films and television shows, from the latest Chava Cartas comedy to a new horror film set on the border, with rom-com TV filling the bill in between; Caetlin Benson-Allot explores the implications of movie theaters introducing alcohol to the screening experience; and Bilal Qureshi calls attention to a Ghanaian resurgence, from The Burial of Kojo to the Venice Biennale.

On the festival front, curator/programmer Rasha Salti reflects on an exciting Cannes edition, highlighting films from the Arab world (Tlamess in particular) while admitting the paradox of the entire “biosphere” experience. Duncan Wheeler reports from Malaga, the locale of Spain’s lesser-known festival, marking the influence of television and streaming giants while underlining the persistence of a theatrical sector for Spanish films.

In “Page Views,” Kartik Nair discusses Priya Jaikumar’s Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space in a conversation that, among other issues, delves into her revelations of production backstories that forever change the perception of classic films, demonstrating the extent to which “the Orient has always been a product of the European imagination.”

Carrie Rickey reviews Pamela Robertson Wojcik’s new collection, The Apartment Complex: Urban Living and Global Screen Cultures, which invites a range of scholars to apply the lens of the apartment as setting to a range of films. Rickey points to essays that analyze films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman, Tsai Ming Liang, and Roman Polanski, and ends with praise for Paula J. Massood’s piece on The Wire. Other reviews in this issue take up books by Kara Keeling, Hermann Kappelhoff (translated by Daniel Hendrickson), Jeffrey Sconce, and Brigitte Peucker, and an anthology edited by Javier Campo and Humberto Pérez-Blanco.

Finally, FQ is pleased to announce two additions to its Contributing Editors roster: Manuel Betancourt, whose essay on Colombian cinema appears in this issue, and Nilo Couret, whose interview with Maria Augusta Ramos appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of FQ. Welcome!


1. Nicolas Atkin, “Hong Kong Protests Embrace Bruce Lee but Reject Jackie Chan in Tale of Two Martial Arts Heroes,” South China Morning Post, June 29, 2019, http://www.scmp.com/sport/martial-arts/kung-fu/article/3016609/hong-kong-protests-embrace-bruce-lee-reject-jackie-chan. Bruce Lee’s famous saying originally appeared in “The Way of the Intercepting Fist” episode of the television show Longstreet written by his friend and kung fu student Stirling Silliphant. Thanks to Daniel Martinez for this information.
2. Lawrence Van Gelder, “Judy Garland’s Funeral Draws Her Colleagues,” New York Times, June 28, 1969, http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/00/04/09/specials/garland-funeral.html.
3. See, e.g., Nathaniel Frank, “Stonewall’s Gift: 50 Years Ago Queer Fury Erupted and Changed the World,” Rolling Stone, June 25, 2009, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/stonewall-50-years-world-pride-judy-garland-funeral-851872/.
4. Bri’on Whiteside, “Black Student Union Pushing to Rename Gish Theater,” Toledo Blade, February 28, 2019.
5. Lauren Lindstrom, “BGSU Trustees Vote to Drop ‘Gish’ from Theater Name over Racist Film,” Toledo Blade, May 3, 2019.
6. Lindstrom, “BGSU Trustees Vote to Drop ‘Gish.’”
7. A motley gathering (mostly male, mostly white) of a certain cinematic generation signed the letter demanding that the Gish name be restored: Mike Kaplan and Joseph McBride wrote the letter, which was also signed by George Stevens Jr., Peter Bogdanovich, Malcolm McDowell, James Earl Jones, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese, Lauren Hutton, Joe Dante, and many others. See Michael Kaplan and Joseph McBride, “An Opportunity for Fairness and Justice at Bowling Green State University,” https://bgindependentmedia.org/gish-controversy-an-exchange/; and Nancy Bilyeau, “Outrage as University Strips Name of Lillian Gish from Campus Theater,” Vintage News, June 20, 2019, http://www.thevintagenews.com/2019/06/20/lillian-gish-theater/.
8. The Editors, “Cancellation Culture,” Cineaste 44, no. 3 (Summer 2019): 1.
9. Pamela Hutchinson, “Lillian Gish: Should a Great Actor Be Judged by a Racist Film?” The Guardian, May 10, 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/10/lillian-gish-the-birth-of-a-nation-controversy-name-removed-cinema-ohio.
10. Jude Dry, “Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, and More Decry Removal of Lillian Gish’s Name from Theater,” IndieWire, June 19, 2019. As do so many others, Dry notes: “Gish was not merely an actor in ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ however, she played a large role in getting it made and took an active role in defending Griffith and maintaining his legacy.”
11. Girish Shambu, “Conservative Pushback in Film Culture,” GirishShambu, June 24, 2019, http://www.girishshambu.net/2019/06/conservative-pushback-in-film-culture.html.
12. Hutchinson, “Lillian Gish: Should a Great Actor Be Judged by a Racist Film?”
13. Trey Mangum, “The Danger in Hollywood’s Continued Humanization of White Supremacists,” Shadow and Act, June 28, 2019, https://shadowandact.com/the-danger-in-hollywoods-continued-humanization-of-white-supremacists.
14. Kyle Buchanan, “Will the Movies Exist in 10 Years? Forecasting the Future of the Movie Business,” New York Times, Arts and Leisure, June 23, 2019, 12–14.
15. James Schamus, “The Hundred-Year-Old Question: Can American Cinema Be Saved?” Film Quarterly 71, no. 3 (Spring 2018): 37–47.
16. Eric Kohn, “Here’s How Movie Theaters Will Survive the Next 10 Years: Exhibitors Speak Out,” IndieWire, June 28, 2019, http://www.indiewire.com/2019/06/movie-exhibition-distribution-future-1202152832/.
17. Vladan Petkovic, “Orwa Nyrabia, Artistic Director, IDFA: ‘This Is Not Us Being Nice, Smart and Progressive; This Is Us Surviving,’” CineEuropa, June 17, 2019, https://cineuropa.org/en/interview/373908/.
18. Petkovic, “Orwa Nyrabio, Artistic Director, IDFA.”
19. David Griner, “Six Lessons Alfonso Cuarón Wants Marketers to Learn about Supporting Causes,” AdWeek, June 29, 2019, http://www.adweek.com/creativity/six-lessons-alfonso-cuaron-wants-marketers-to-learn-about-supporting-causes/.
20. Griner, “Six Lessons.”
21. For background information at the time of Rojas’s arrest (but before his deportation to Argentina, which he’d left twenty years earlier), see Christine Bolaños, “Claudio Rojas Appeared in a Sundance Documentary about Immigration Activists. Now He’s Detained by ICE,” Remezcla, March 7, 2019, https://remezcla.com/features/film/claudio-rojas-ice-detention-infiltrators-documentary/. For the voice of Claudio Rojas, speaking from Argentina after his deportation: http://www.facebook.com/NationalImmigrantYouthAlliance/videos/2232557580341041/.

© 2019 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.