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Town Destroyer cover image

Town Destroyer 2023

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Snitow-Kaufman Productions and Peggy Berryhill (Muscogee)
Directed by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman
Streaming, 53 mins

High School - General Adult
Art; Censorship; U.S. History

Date Entered: 05/12/2023

Reviewed by Kathleen H. Flynn, Science Librarian, University at Albany

In recent years, there has been an increased focus and examination on how we portray and teach American history, especially slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. A particular area of focus is on art found in public places, such as statues, monuments, or paintings, and how these depictions of American figures and events may perpetuate historical trauma among members of the community, particularly people of color. The film Town Destroyer thoughtfully examines these controversial and timely topics of art, American history, and social justice.

The film discusses the debate surrounding whether to remove the Life of Washington mural created by Victor Arnautoff in 1936 at George Washington High School in San Francisco, California. Included in the images of Washington’s life are a dead Native American man lying face down and enslaved people working on Washington’s land. In 2019, the school board held a series of emotionally charged meetings with the community in preparation for a vote on the fate of the mural. Portions of these meetings feature in the film and showcase the significance of this issue for those who voice their opinions.

Previous debate over this mural resulted in a companion mural being commissioned in the 1960s to present an African American artist’s perspective. The artist, Dewey Crumpler, is one of the many speakers in the film alongside other artists, museum curators, and professors. Speakers provide context of the mural, Victor Arnautoff, representations of Native Americans in pop culture, the accuracy of history included in school curricula, and other murals that also present historical events not commonly taught in schools or our media, such as the Great Wall of Los Angeles. Those in favor of removing the mural believe it causes students to feel unsafe in school and perpetuates stereotypical representations of Native Americans. Opponents of removing it believe to do so would be censoring history.

The film delivers a well-balanced and considerate exploration of all aspects of the debate including trauma and its repetition, the artist’s intent, and art preservation. It is highly recommended for courses in U.S. history or art history and will inspire reflection and discussion among viewers.

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