DJ Spooky (nom de plume of hip-hop multimedia artist Paul D. Miller) first tore into D.W. Griffith’s insidious but perpetually canonical The Birth of a Nation in 2004, during the immediate aftermath of America’s acts of aggression upon Iraq, but before its equally hostile acts of passive-aggression on New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Now, in 2009, the winds of politics may have predictably shifted, the regimes may have changed, and the surfaces of the American experience may seem as though they’ve been rewired. But DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation (a “remix” of the film screening this June at MoMA opposite the Griffith original) suggests so long as our culture devotes any measure of attention to mass media, The Powers That Be will forever hold control over how we view not only our present situation, but our past as well.
Griffith’s 1915 film has entrenched itself into the DNA of that American brand of pop culture, by virtue of its status as arguably the earliest blockbuster, feature-length epic. While the film’s contemporary audiences (many of whom were alive during the Civil War) didn’t exactly let the movie’s unabashedly racist portrayals of blacks and open deification of the Ku Klux Klan steamroll movie screens without a fight (protests, denouncements, and localized bans were carried out, mainly north of the Mason-Dixon line), the movie still saw its way to astronomical profits. Taking into account America’s population growth, it may well have been one of the most widely seen films in U.S. history, per capita.
DJ Spooky seems to view the film’s ubiquity as both dangerous and fortuitous. Because Griffith and author Thomas Dixon’s portrayals of race strike all but the most dispensable representatives of modern audiences as ludicrously unacceptable, the film’s credentials as reportage (Woodrow Wilson’s oft repeated “like writing history with lightning” blurb) have been totally compromised, probably irreparably. DJ Spooky isn’t particularly interested in refuting what’s already dubious. Instead, he reedits the movie, occasionally spiking the images with animated doodles or highlighting notable details, gestures, or expressions. The Rebirth of a Nation edit spends nearly twice as much screen time on the Reconstruction (the second act of Griffith’s diptych) as it does on the Civil War. Though he gives the truncated film a moody new score and drops in some critical commentary at various junctures, for the most part he lets the film’s most hateful images play out stripped away from the historical pageantry. The effect is like drinking a can of orange juice concentrate gone sour. It’s so undiluted yet hews so close to the original template that one suspects it was created not as an addendum to the original film, but instead as a replacement.
As the narration sums toward the end of DJ Spooky’s chopped-n-screwed version, Birth of a Nation itself is a set of cinematic training wheels, an apparatus by which audiences can see how easily political and social narratives can be manipulated, and how easily the power of the medium can be harnessed to form its viewers’ opinions. While I’m not going to say Griffith’s movie ever had me rooting for the KKK, it’s not hard to recognize the same rhetorical devices in fine fettle here and now. DJ Spooky makes it explicitly clear he sees the 24-hour news cycle as Birth of a Nation‘s direct descendant, but cinephiles might also consider the deluding trickery of something like Lars von Trier’s excellent and infuriating Dogville, a town that doesn’t seem so far removed (either spiritually or technically) from Griffith’s Piedmont. Ultimately, Rebirth of a Nation highlights what a Pandora’s Box moviemaking opened.