Live DJ remix and silent films would appear to sit at opposite ends of the media landscape, but in the hands of DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller), the interplay between the historical and the contemporary is a chance to reveal the intricacies of both. In this remix of The Birth of a Nation, images and sounds from a century ago are re-formatted, juxtaposed, and re-examined in order to interrogate both their particular meanings and the ways that film can sometimes show us both the best and worst of our own culture.
For all of cinema’s glorious successes in the past 125 years, it has also been unique among art forms in that it carries a sin that has haunted it for nearly its entire life. Just as film was entering its young adulthood in the feature era of the teens, The Birth of a Nation (1915) came to define both the possibilities of cinema and its ugliest, basest instincts. We sometimes forget how profoundly The Birth of a Nation has shaped cinema culture, because it is the only history we have, but in every decade since it was released, people who love cinema have had to grapple with this racist epic that stands near the headwaters of the form itself. From the earliest film retrospectives at the “Little Theatres” and the Museum of Modern Art in the 1920s and ‘30s, through the cinema club era of mid-century, and into our modern epoch where films are studied in universities, scholars and critics and fans have argued continuously about this film that is a beautifully constructed tribute to hatred, bigotry, and fear.
For cinema’s first three decades, it was a medium of the now, a popular entertainment barely regarded as an art form. It was only in the late 1920s that some cinephiles began to program “historical” films, some of which were only a decade old. The development of film had been so rapid in its first decades that even films that were five years old were often regarded as unsophisticated or ridiculous. There was a growing awareness though that film had a history like any other art form, and it could be traced through various “masterpieces” that defined different periods. By the time the Museum of Modern Art began its film library in 1935, there was a strong sense that American film history was best defined by D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance (1916) could hold their own against the best of European film. An acknowledgement of the profound racism of The Birth of a Nation was often weighed against a desire to preserve a place in the emerging canon for America’s most prominent director.
In the cinema clubs that created and nurtured film culture in the middle of the 20th century, there was often a much stronger sense of the depth of Griffith’s sins. This was at the same moment as the development of the idea that film history was an intriguing and worthwhile subject, so while cinephiles tended to firmly reject Griffith’s claim that he had told the story of Reconstruction truthfully, there was no way to tell the story of cinema without his works. When film studies seeped into the academy in the latter half of the 20th century, it often arrived in literature departments heavily influenced by New Criticism, which emphasized the form of literature rather than its social or historical context. For The Birth of a Nation, this usually meant that the focus was on Griffith’s editing or cinematography rather than on his white supremacist message, and generations of college students were often asked to “set aside” the content and to see the film as a masterclass in moviemaking.
It was in the context of this century-long intellectual and moral struggle that DJ Spooky went back to this original sin of cinema in the early part of the 21st century to perform what he called a “digital exorcism.” His Rebirth of a Nation uses images from the film that are re-purposed and played against each other, dissembling the master’s house with both the master’s tools and plenty of new ones. Racist stereotypes and vicious slanders are ripped from their narrative bases and re-imagined as complicated signifiers of our past and present narratives of race. As he puts it, confronting these images can make them absurd, and his project provides an opportunity to confront the film with its own paradoxes.
As useful as it is to confront the racist stereotypes in Griffith’s work, DJ Spooky’s project is more profound than that. He imagines it as “a deep analysis of how American culture is structured around a series of clichés structured around race,” and while the focus of The Birth of a Nation is relations between Black and white people during Reconstruction, Spooky is more than aware that these clichés affect others as well. Rebirth of a Nation was initially conceived in the aftermath of the 2004 revelations about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and he notes that part of what had happened there was that prisoners had been cast into preconceived roles. That is not to imply of course that any of this is “play,” but instead that the ways that film and media train us to see each other can have devastating and deadly real-world implications.
The Birth of a Nation has been the subject of much scholarly analysis and writing over the years, but there is something unique about the approach that remix affords. Spooky notes that part of the impetus for remix was that it was a way to think about information structure, about “how people move between media like moving between different languages.” Remix offers us the chance to shift between these media languages, a process he refers to as a type of “creolization.”
Regular attendees of the SFSFF who feel like they have a reasonable fluency in the language of silent film will likely have a different experience of Rebirth of a Nation than those who are new to the festival. This is not to say that one needs a particular background to understand the project, only to note that images and sequences will have different resonances for different audience members, depending on who we are and what we bring to the screening.
There can be little doubt that DJ Spooky has been able to find an audience for his work. Rebirth of a Nation has been playing in museums and universities around the world since 2004, a remarkable run for a project that would seem to exist at the intersection of two niche media cultures. Its success demonstrates both Spooky’s skill and the possibilities and potential of letting intriguing new art forms exorcise the demons of the old.
Post screening there was an onstage conversation with Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) and Wesley Morris of the New York Times
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by DJ Spooky and Classical Revolution with Guenter Buchwald