DJ Spooky reinvents controversial classic film

Ask any serious film critic and they’ll tell you that D.W. Griffith was an innovative filmmaker. Ask any reasonable person who has viewed Griffith’s famous film “Birth of a Nation,” including that same critic, and they’ll tell you he was also a card-carrying racist.

As part of Stalwart Originality 2003, the Williams Black Student Union (BSU) screened “Birth of a Nation” in conjunction with the performance of “Re-Birth of a Nation” at MASS MoCA. This multimedia performance – a video and musical remix of the film – is a work-in-progress by acclaimed academic and hip-hop turntable-ist Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid.

At the screening of “Birth of a Nation,” Miller was joined by former Williams Professor Craig Wilder, who spoke at length and answered questions about the historical and socio-political background of the era in which the film was made. The wounds inflicted during the bloody American Civil War were still fresh, and the story is a chronicle of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The film goes on to glorify the KKK as a virtuous group of gleaming white knights who reclaim and protect the honor and dignity of the Southern gentleman.

In the nascent stages of the development of the art of film, Griffith invented numerous editing techniques and essentially used them to define early American cinema. His two most famous films, “Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance,” showcased his ability to capture an audience with grand epics involving multiple story lines, impressive mise-en-scene and intense narrative style. As Miller repeatedly pointed out, “Birth of a Nation” was (and to a certain extent, remains) an immensely popular film – “the first blockbuster.”

It was also a very influential film. Ever since Griffith’s pioneering era of black-and-white, silent cinema, movie directors worldwide have utilized the structural and editing devices he created. At the same time, Griffith used his films as a soapbox for his bizarre, pacifist message as well as his notorious racist ideology. His influence raises an important question: how do we respect the contributions to the arts and sciences by individuals who were pernicious racists? Perhaps we must appreciate the contribution for what it’s worth, suggested poet Sekou Sundiata, also in attendance, while recognizing the legacy of hatred such ideas fostered.

The film is certainly a spectacle. While it is not acclaimed by critics as representative of Griffith’s best work, “Birth of a Nation” displays his talent for extracting passionate and expressive performances from his lead actors, although the lack of depth of character often seems to reveal his ideological motives.

After the film, Miller and Wilder fielded audience questions about the historical background of the film, as well as the effects the film had on 1920s America. Miller discussed the repercussions of the film on the collective identity of black Americans. Set primarily in the post-war, Reconstruction-era South, “Birth of a Nation” depicts several vicious stereotypes of black slaves: facile field hands, tame house servants (who apparently accept the dominion their white masters hold over them) and, after the war, foolish, childlike politicians and uncontrollable, marauding Renegade soldiers. Mulattos are invariably characterized as power-hungry, highly sexualized imitators of whites. As Wilder and Miller both commented, racist, white supremacist groups like the KKK frequently used the film as a recruitment device. Its simplistic caricatures, dangerously coupled with the immediacy of the new medium of the cinema, helped spark an expansion of these groups into the northern states during the 1920s.

The offensiveness of this film’s attitudes toward black Americans is rarely questioned. However, both Miller and Wilder mentioned that it’s important to not simply ignore the film out of disgust. In fact, Miller’s tactic for dealing with the film is, under his hip-hop persona of DJ Spooky, to remix it, to reclaim its narrative, to accentuate the damage the film does while exposing its untruths.

Similar to other recent (and decidedly postmodern) attempts by black artists and writers to appropriate hateful stories and symbols – from Alice Randall’s scandalous “The Wind Done Gone,” to Kara Walker’s silhouette art – DJ Spooky’s project deconstructs Griffith’s hateful yet shrewdly created whitewash of racial politics. The result, which I should emphasize is a work-in-progress, is an equally slick collage of music, image and vague postmodern discourse.

The performing artists were introduced by Sundiata, and after a brief and not unwelcome rant about the rush to war in Iraq and the similarities between the 2000 election imbroglio and various themes in “Birth of a Nation,” DJ Spooky invited his fellow performers to the stage.

The most impressive performance was by violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. His electrifying and lightning-fast violin riffs often seemed improvised, but always masterful. Along with competent, though not particularly inspiring, vocals by Sasha Lazard and scratching and mixing and electronic effects provided by DJ Spooky, the music (which occasionally reminded me of “The Fifth Element” soundtrack) was the most captivating element of the work. The video, while well-edited and interesting at times, lacked focus and seemed to occasionally be mired in abstraction.

In no way do I oppose Miller’s desire to break through the barriers of high culture and the ivory tower of academia, and while I certainly appreciate his lament that African-American art is often still presumed to be mere entertainment, I think that this work could benefit from a clearer and more straightforward focus. For instance, I never understood what the images of circuits contributed to the themes Miller was exploring. Although I agree with postmodern deconstructionist theory to a certain extent, and I realize the usefulness of abstraction in works of art, I thought the overlay of a modern dance performance with the ghostlike images of KKK members from the original film did not make much sense. As Miller explained, the dance images, from “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land” by Bill T. Jones, were relevant to a discussion of “Birth of a Nation.” However, it was difficult for me to discern the subject of dance because it was mixed in with a thousand other images. Perhaps I simply missed the point. These flaws do not prevent the project from being an important work of art: Miller is certainly talented and has an eye for the misconceptions and simplifications that are used to mislead people.At the end of the performance, the video screens displayed the climactic slogan of the original film: “Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever.” The statement was bitterly ironic and haunting, considering the disunion and breaches of liberty that continue today.

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