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DJ Spooky’s “Rebirth of a Nation”

I’m in Louisville, Kentucky, for approximately 36 hours as part of my whirlwind tour of the US (which has included SF, Pittsburgh and NYC so far this month, and features Camden, Maine, Chicago and NYC in the next week or so.) I’m here for the Idea Festival, appearing on a panel organized by Mental Floss magazine, featuring a set of young thinkers opining about our visions of the future… at 9am on a Saturday morning. My visions of the future that early on a Saturday often involve rolling over in bed and wishing I’d programmed the coffee pot to brew a cup at 10am…

Louisville is beautiful, from what I’ve seen, and evidence from street signs suggests it’s the home of Muhammed Ali, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the place that makes the baseball bats… but I’m just guessing. Not much time to do research. But I’d come into Louisville this evening not to go drinking on 4th street, but to catch DJ Spooky’s performance of his remixed version of “Birth of a Nation”.

For those not up on your Ku Klux Klan propoganda, “Birth of a Nation” is a 1915 silent film produced by Louisville native son D.W. Griffith. It’s a critical piece of cinematic history – the first feature-length American film, a film that pioneered cinematic language like the jump cut and the extreme closeup. It’s also a film that inspired riots in Boston and Philadelphia and, according to some historians, helped reinvigorate the moribund Ku Klux Klan, turning it into the force that wreaked so much havok in the American south in the 20th century.

Paul Miller – aka DJ Spooky – has devoted years of his life to remixing the 190 minute film, cutting and scratching the video in much the same way he mixes records. He introduced the film by reminding us that it was the first film screened at the White House and that President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the film, lauding its historical accuracy. (This turns out to be the subject of some historical dispute – while Wilson did oppose the integration of Princeton University, there’s evidence that quotes supporting Griffith’s production were fabricated.) Invoking founders of hiphop Grand Master Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, he notes that the titles early DJ’s chose for themselves were – oddly enough – the same titles Klan leaders used… and points out that calling yourself a “Grand Wizard” probably means something very different in the South Bronx than in the South.

Miller’s remix of the film isn’t an easy thing to watch. He loops scenes again and again, taking us through the plot of the film, but seizing iconic scenes and images and repeating them on one of three screens, alone or layered with images of building layouts, circuit boards, and a stretch of Bill T. Jones’s “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. We’re given clues to what’s going on by the text slides – framed either by script telling us this is a “DG – Griffith” production or a “PDM – Paul Miller” production, which help us tell whether the happy slaves played by whites in blackface, dancing for the visiting northerners, are the original or the remix.

The layering is thick and heavy early in the piece, but it thins out as the film moves forward. Instead, we get a Cliff Notes version of the three-hour film: the war, reconstruction, the collapse of the South into anarchy because of black rule, and the rise of the KKK to protect white honor. Miller wants to subvert the scenes he’s showing, but there is a sense in which we’re just watching the film really quickly, with a hand on the rewind button.

Which ultimately is why the project leaves me feeling really uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have chosen to spend the evening watching “Birth of a Nation”, and yet, in an odd way, I did anyway. One of Miller’s goals – I think – is to defang the material by layering and looping it, throwing it over booming beats and generally reclaiming it. But it’s hard material to reclaim, and I’m not sure he wins the battle.

Miller took questions at the end, and I wish I’d gotten to ask mine. In invoking Grandmaster Flash and other hiphop pioneers at the start of the piece, he reminded me that one of the early goals of hiphop was to grab the piece of the record – the break – that everyone loved and play it over and over again to fill the dance floor. In this case, Miller is grabbing tremendously offensive material – a white man in blackface portraying an animalistic black man desperate to stalk an innocent white girl – and looping it again and again. Is his looping a different sort of tribute?

Or has Miller fallen in love, in an odd way, with Griffith’s work? His comments on Griffith – his respect for the choreography of the film, the innovation of the camerawork – suggests to me that he’s developed a sincere affection for this piece he’s been living with for years. But it makes for uneasy viewing – I’m not done with being shocked by the blatant distortions of history, the naked racist cliches. I’m not ready to find it funny yet, as Miller does – he tells us that he sees it as something like The Cosby Show meets the West Wing. Maybe it’s one of those things I need to see a few more times to sympathize with the artist’s point of view… or maybe it’s one where the artist and the viewer are unlikely ever to be on the same side.

I’m grateful, ultimately, that I got to see the piece – it’s a piece of American cultural history that I didn’t understand. But I wonder whether this is the right way to handle these pieces of history. Should I start remixing Leni Riefenstahl propoganda films as a way of dealing with Jewish heritage and the holocaust? Or, as someone in the audience suggested, maybe films like “Birth of a Nation” deserve to be forgotten in a vault somewhere and not taken out again any time soon.

2 thoughts on “DJ Spooky’s “Rebirth of a Nation””

  1. I saw Birth of a Nation years ago, the actual film, as part of a perspective on the history of film. I disagree very much that it’s a film that should be put away and forgotten, because it shows, all too clearly, how apparently normal people can convince themselves God is on their side while they turn themselves into something other than human. There are better and less offensive ways to teach that lesson, and I know that it wasn’t the film’s original purpose, and yet it’s valuable for that.

    As our country tries to pretend torture can be made “legal,” and begins detaining people without trial, I don’t know what is more important than to see how the slide into darkness begins.

  2. To be clear, I’m not in the “bury it in a vault and forget it” camp either… My question has more to do with what’s the context in which one watches a film like Birth of a Nation. In the context of a larger discussion of the history of racism in the US or the history of film, I can see how it might make a lot of sense. In this context, I felt like I didn’t have as much background as I wanted and that the evening was too much watching a truly ugly film with a bass-heavy soundtrack attached to it. But it did get me to do some reading on Griffith, the film and the revival of the KKK, all of which were useful and which Miller deserves credit for getting me to think about…

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