2022, 53 minutes, Executive Producer Peggy Berryhill (Muscogee)
TOWN DESTROYER explores how to look at art and history at a time of polarized national debate over the power of images, racism, trauma, and what should be taught in schools. A dispute erupts at a San Francisco high school over Depression-era murals about the life of George Washington: slaveowner, military leader, land speculator, President, and a man Native leaders called “Town Destroyer” after he ordered their villages destroyed during the Revolutionary War.
The 13 murals at George Washington High School were painted in 1936 by leftwing artist Victor Arnautoff, a student of Diego Rivera. The murals both praise Washington and–rare for the time—critically depict him overseeing his slaves and directing the bloody seizure of Native lands. Most controversial is a provocative image of a dead Indian–life-size, eye-level, at the center of the school.
Opponents of the murals–led by Native American parents–demand the School Board not just cover the murals, but paint them over so they can never be viewed again. For them, the murals’ graphic depictions of slavery and Native dispossession and genocide are not only racist, but also harm students and alienate them from school. Mural defenders warn of the dangers of censoring historic works of art. They question claims that the murals cause trauma for high school students and urge the Board instead to ‘teach the murals.’
Complex and nuanced discussion becomes impossible as heated debates spill into the community and make national headlines. The fight – taking place in the wake of battles over Confederate monuments across the U.S. – becomes a catalyst for national discussion about censorship, reparations, generational trauma, and the teaching of American history.
How should society deal with controversial works of art? Do the intentions of the artist matter? or the impact on viewers? Is education advanced by exposing students to difficult ideas and images or by protecting students from them? Is the language of traumas and triggers inhibiting freedom of speech or insuring a good learning environment? What does our country owe people who have been historically wronged?
On our journey we meet with art curators Rick West Jr. (Cheyenne) and Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), artists Dewey Crumpler and Judith Lowry (Maidu-Pit River), UCLA Historian Robin D.G. Kelley, and others who provide insight, provocation, and inspiration.
World Premiere: Mill Valley Film Festival, 2022
“Not to be missed.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Fiery, Nuanced, Remarkable. “Town Destroyer’ sheds new light on our first president and illuminates a work of art that roiled the city and the nation.” –San Francisco Examiner
“A fascinating overview of a case that encapsulates many of the bitterest divisions of our era. –Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills
“A remarkable perceptive, insightful new documentary.” –Kelly Vance, East Bay Express
“An important contribution towards understanding contemporary perspectives on Native lived experiences, art, histories, and education.” –John-Carlos Parea, Chair, American Indian Studies, San Francisco State University
“Town Destroyer makes you stop and think—which is a brave and even dangerous thing to do in today’s America.” –David Talbot, New York Times best-selling author of “The Season of the Witch.”
“For a documentary to even-handedly and adroitly cover a complex, painful, and controversial subject requires not only talent, but a clarity of vision and cinematic compassion.” –C.J. Hirschfield, Eat, Drink, Films
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