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.Talk of the Town

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Documentary shows how an historical mural upset the cultural balance 80 years later

Here’s an election-season open-ended rhetorical question on which to chew: How liberal is liberal enough? But before we get into any barroom brawls or Thanksgiving family feuds, let’s check in with a couple of putative experts on the subject, Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, makers of the insightful new documentary, Town Destroyer

If you’re a wide-awake urban moviegoer reading this in the Bay Area—especially the East Bay—chances are you’re familiar with Kaufman and Snitow. As writers-producers-directors of such public-spirited documentaries as Secrets of Silicon Valley, Thirst (on water-supply issues) and Between Two Worlds (Jewish identity and politics), the Berkeley-based wife-and-husband team thrives on provocative policy and cultural studies that provide more probing questions than pat answers. 

Their 2016 doc, Company Town, examined the impact of the tech industry on San Francisco. But Town Destroyer may well be the all-time most hot-button item in Kaufman and Snitow’s toolkit. 

What’s locally known as the George Washington High School (GWHS) mural brouhaha began, by some accounts, in 2019 when the San Francisco Board of Education took a vote to decide what to do about artist Victor Arnautoff’s enormous 1936 mural, The Life of Washington, in the school’s lobby.

A group of students—ultimately joined by non-student activists plus ordinary citizens—became upset at the mural’s depictions of slavery and brutality against Natives. Some even demanded that the mural be painted over or removed. (Many of the same objections to the Arnautoff mural had been raised by Washington High students in the 1960s, and a remedial mural, titled Multi-Ethnic Heritage, was installed in 1974.) 

Arnautoff (1896-1979), a Russian immigrant who painted in the Bay Area from 1925 to 1963, had served as an assistant to renowned Mexican large-scale painter Diego Rivera, and Arnautoff adopted a similar leftist political stance in his own work. Citing free speech, Arnautoff’s on-screen supporters in Town Destroyer are quick to point out that The Life of Washington explicitly editorializes against colonialism and racism.

History, meanwhile, shows that in real life the “father of our country” was a slave owner who waged punitive, allegedly genocidal war against Natives who made the mistake of backing the British during the American Revolution. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people gave Washington the nickname Hanodaga:yas, or Town Destroyer, for his 1779 attack on them. 

The widely reported controversy reinforces San Francisco’s reputation as a political romper room, with—as one newspaper headline put it—“Free Speech in Clash with Racial Justice.” At times, public-forum screaming matches seemed poised to tear the city apart. The questions of the day: Who does history belong to? And, how shall art reflect that story?

The filmmakers choose creative figures—and, tellingly, GWHS students—to be their talking heads, rather than elected officials. Dewey Crumpler, the former Washington High student chosen to paint the Multi-Ethnic Heritage mural, relates the current debate to African-American protests in the 1960s. 

Artist Judith Lowry, one of several commentators who identifies as Native (Maidu-Pit River), stresses the importance of “telling our own stories” with art, and highlights Arnautoff’s subtle but insistent use of color coding—black-and-white for colonists, full color for Natives—in the disputed mural. UCLA history professor Robin D.G.F. Kelley thinks the term “traumatize” may be overused. “Trauma becomes the easy way to justify the erasure of things you just don’t like.” 

Current GWHS students are pretty evenly divided on the issue. But the inescapable impression left by Snitow and Kaufman’s remarkably perceptive documentary is that Victor Arnautoff may have been ahead of his time in 1936, but in 2022 it seems clear his vision has aged badly. At this late date, he’s no longer the right one to tell the story.

At the Roxie, SF, Nov. 4-10

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