DJ Spooky’s Re-birth of a Nation
By Joan Hawkins
In my field of Film Studies, Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) is the quintessential bad object and perennial pedagogical headache. Based on a novel, The Clansmen: A Historical Romance (Thomas F. Dixon Jr, 1905), the film is explicitly racist. It lionizes the Ku Klux Klan and seemingly endorses, or possibly incites, violence against Black people, particularly Black men. But it also represents an evolutionary leap forward in the history of cinema. Not just a film where there are some interesting aesthetics, but a total game changer.
It was here that D. W. Griffith developed cross-cutting, developed and extended the use of the tracking shot, developed and extended the use of the close-up to heighten emotion and facilitate viewer identification with a character. While previous films like A Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter 1903) or Voyage to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902) had used action to create strong narrative lines, no previous film had attempted a complex, action-driven narrative on such an epic scale. Or had attempted such a sustained, emotionally-driven story. Birth of a Nation juggles multiple plot strands over the course of almost three hours. It crystallized the narrative and formal vocabulary that has dominated American cinema for the past 100 years. For film scholars, it is a film that remains impossible to teach and impossible not to. “The worst thing about Birth of a Nation,” the New Yorker wrote in 2013, “is how good it is.”
So why would a Black electronic and hip-hop musician like Paul Miller– aka DJ Spooky, aka That Subliminal Kid—make it a project to recut, remix, reimagine, and “scratch” the film? To resurrect it yet again? He’s always been interested in appropriation art, citing both Duchamps and Warhol as influences. And he started his career working in science fiction, a speculative genre that encourages social critique through the depiction of alternative worlds, alternative histories. So when Rebirth was commissioned in 2004, Spooky saw it as a way to tell the story of American racism from the subaltern’s perspective, and in so doing to literally force (through reorganization of the image) a different point of view. “Rebirth of a Nation is a mirror held up to society’s racial politics,” he said. “You see a lot of paradoxes.”
Why would a Black electronic and hip-hop musician recut, remix, reimagine and “scratch” D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation?
Spooky’s commission came at a sensitive moment. Following the 9/11 attacks, we were at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Islamophobia had become a thing, and what might be considered America’s primal racism—the net effect of a country founded on slavery and on the subjugation of indigenous peoples—seemed to be spreading outward in concentric circles. Writing about the Rebirth project in 2015, Spooky said: “In an era where NSA’S PRISM program and whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have shown us that perspective can truly alter global events, we need more than ever, to see the context that early cinema offers us from the viewpoint of showing us that, as my old friend Saul Williams liked to say: Another World Is Possible. A remix of a film as deeply important and problematic as The Birth of a Nation reminds us, in the era of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, that many of these issues still linger with us at every level.”
American Story: Birth of a Nation
Birth of a Nation (1915) was released into a country that was racially complicated, to say the least. Segregation was the law in the South and the practice in the North. But the Northern migration had begun and in cities like Chicago, there was some opportunity for work and for home ownership. Photos from the era show the emergence of a sophisticated, urbane Black professional middle class. A middle class that was increasingly impatient with the racist imagery prevalent in the white culture industry. Starting around 1910, Chicago film companies like Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Ebony Pictures began producing race movies for an increasingly discriminating audience. These were movies with all-Black casts and serious story lines, that were shown as “Midnight Rambles” (midnight until 2 a.m.) in segregated theaters. The films featured stories about Black professionals who were trying to get ahead. Some were genre films like romances, comedies or cowboy movies. And to see these films outside their historic context, one would think all was right with the world. But the films were aspirational. Outside the theaters and Black community organizations, it was dangerous to be African American. Lynchings were common. In 1900, 100 Black folk were lynched in the United States—and that only counts the number reported and chronicled. “Georgia trees bear a strange fruit,” Lady Day sang in 1939. But at the turn of the century, African Americans knew that Northern trees, too, had their own “blood on the leaves, blood at the root.” And so when D. W. Griffith made an epic romance about the Klan in 1915, the Black community and their white friends were outraged.
“The response of the Black community to Birth of a Nation predates the film,” Toni Cade Bambara tells us. “The work on which it had been based, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen, had first been a book, then it had been a play, then it had been a pageant. And there had been a mobilization of Black clubswomen against Dixon and The Clansmen.” And now, having fought against the book, the play, the pageant, these same women realized there was going to be a film. Not just any film, but one with 15 reels, 3 hours long, that had already been screened at the White House and declared a masterpiece by President Wilson. It had a massive publicity campaign. “Within the neighborhoods,” Professor Bambara continues, “not only are we being bombarded with billboards and flyers with the usual inflammatory, humiliating images, but now we’re being barraged by this massive film.”
Across the country Black leaders and their white supporters organized, went to court and staged protests in an attempt to ban the movie. The Boston Globe reported that Birth of a Nation caused “a near-riot” in Boston, as an alleged plot to destroy the film resulted in “wild scenes and 11 arrests.” As it turns out, the Black community had every reason to be alarmed.
The film’s release is credited as being one of the events that inspired the formation of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year. And the Klan used the film as a recruiting tool.
The film follows two juxtaposed families: the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. There is something of a Romeo and Juliet motif as one of the Stoneman sons falls in love with Margaret Cameron, and the youngest Cameron son falls in love with Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish). And for awhile, it seems that the film will focus on whether lovers from opposing political sides can ever be together.
While that theme does remain a constant throughout the film, it is overshadowed by a postwar Reconstruction horror story. After Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, Austin Stoneman and his fellow radical Republicans are determined to punish the South, employing harsh tactics that Griffith depicts as typical of the Reconstruction era. It is in the Reconstruction half of the film that racist representations—present throughout the film– become positively dizzying. Stoneman has a psychopathic mulatto protégé, Silas Lynch. When the two travel to South Carolina to observe Reconstruction in action, they see Black occupation soldiers parading in the streets and pushing white residents aside on the sidewalk. During an election in which Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, whites are prevented from voting while Blacks are observed stuffing the ballot boxes. Newly elected Black members of the South Carolina legislature take their shoes off in the House, put their feet up on the tables, drink hard liquor and feast on fried chicken during debates. The Legislature is shown passing laws requiring white civilians to salute Black soldiers and allowing mixed-race marriages. When Flora Cameron goes off alone into the woods to fetch water, she is followed by Gus, a freedman. He tells her he wants to marry her, and she is so frightened by his insistence that she jumps into a precipice and dies. In the meantime the despicable Lynch has designs on Elsie Stoneman. It is the Klan of course who ride to the rescue, saving Elsie, revenging Flora, and under the leadership of Ben Cameron, riding in a massive formation to liberate an entire town. The following Election Day, Blacks find mounted and armed Klansmen outside their homes and are intimidated into not voting. A move the film clearly endorses. Birth of a Nation concludes with white supremacy restored and with a double wedding as Margaret Cameron marries Phil Stoneman and Elsie Stoneman marries Ben Cameron, the leader of the Klan.
The film spawned the first sequel in film history, The Fall of a Nation (Thomas Dixon, 1916). Despite its success in the foreign market, that film was not successful among American audiences. It is believed that it is now lost.
In 1918, John W. Noble, co-founder of Lincoln Motion Picture Company (one of the race movie companies mentioned earlier), attempted to challenge Griffith and Dixon by making the The Birth of a Race. And in 1919, famed African-American director Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, another powerful response from the African American community. Most notably, he reversed a key scene of Griffith’s film by depicting a white man assaulting a Black woman. And in 2004, DJ Spooky remixed the original film and reimagined it using the tools of electronic music and hip hop culture.
Another story: Détournement
Détournement (French for “turning away” or
“hijacking”) is the act of appropriating a cultural artifact (movie, ad, painting, poster, book) and changing it just enough so that the new meaning subverts its original intent. First developed in the 1950s by the avant-garde Lettrist International, and later adapted by the Situationists, it is the basis for what we have come to call culture jamming. But in its early phase, it was quite subtle. So subtle that Guy Debord, the chief theorist of the French Situationists, wrote long essays describing exactly how to do it. And in one of those essays, he outlined a possible détournement for Birth of a Nation (“Methods of Détournement,” Les Lèvres Nues #8, 1956).
To cut through this absurd confusion of values, we can observe that
Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history
of cinema because of its wealth of new contributions. On the other
hand, it is a racist film and therefore absolutely does not merit being
shown in its present form. But its total prohibition could be seen
as regrettable…It would be better to detourn it as a whole, without
necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack…
This is more or less what DJ Spooky does in his Rebirth of a Nation.
Conceived as a reimagining of The Birth of a Nation, DJ Spooky’s Rebirth is a controversial and culturally significant project that examines how “…exploitation and political corruption still haunt the world to this day, but in radically different forms.” Originally commissioned in 2004 by the Lincoln Center Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, Wiener Festwochen, and the Festival d’Automne à Paris, the project was Miller’s first large-scale multimedia performance piece, and has been performed around the world, from the Sydney Festival to the Herod Atticus Amphitheater, more than fifty times. The DVD version of Rebirth of a Nation was released by Anchor Bay Films/Starz Media in 2008. The project’s live musical score by DJ Spooky, originally recorded by Kronos Quartet, was made available for the first time on CD from Cantaloupe Records, in summer 2015.
For his remix, Spooky cut the film’s overall length by about half, to 100 minutes. Most of the cuts occur in The Civil War Section of the film, so that 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. This has the effect of stripping away much of the romance and the character development of Ben Cameron. What is left is the most offensive imagery and a Klan leader who has no sympathetic build-up. What is left is what Spooky calls “the core myth from the binary opposition at the center of the human mind.”
Within that pared-down edit, Spooky does some very subtle montage, bringing Black characters who live in Griffith’s background to the foreground of the frame for example, and using a parallax shift, so that objects and people are viewed from a different direction than they were in Griffith’s original film. This part of the edit is so subtle that viewers who have never seen the original, or who have not seen it for a long time, probably will not notice it at all. More obvious, is the repetition of images, particularly the now-chilling image of Ben Carson in Klan regalia, seated on a rearing horse. Or the offensive images of Black people dancing and menacing white women. Like Les LeVeque, another found footage artist, Spooky uses reversal and mirroring within the frame, so that key characters are looking at reversed images of themselves, which is perhaps the most basic visual iteration for what racism is, projecting onto the Other some weirdly altered version of one’s own fear and obsessions. He also draws on the frame, sometimes using squiggles and doodles, sometimes strangely precise vector overlays. “The effect,” Eric Henderson notes in Slant, “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.”
While Spooky plays with montage more than Guy Debord would have liked, he does reserve his main intervention—as Debord suggested—for the soundtrack. Back in the day, silent film always had a musical accompaniment. In large urban theaters, this could take the form of a lush orchestral score. Certainly in places like Chicago or New York, one would imagine that a blockbuster like Birth of a Nation would have warranted the full orchestral treatment. But even in small rural church halls or tent-screenings there would be something—an institutional piano, some dude with a saw—to help give the moving picture rhythm. And in the cases of melodrama, music was used as an important emotional clue as well. How do we know that freedman Gus’s marriage proposal is meant to be horrifying? Well that off-key piano in the hall, with its Simon Legree over and undertones, tells us so. Spooky’s score, “by contrast,” Margo Jefferson writes in the New York Times, “deflects our responses, then alters them. A hip-hop drum beat pulses. (It sounds African and ur-ban American.) A wash of industrial sound is joined by bells and cymbals; a dissonant violin; blues fragments. These are the sounds of history and racial complexity that Griffith tried to suppress. ”
The 90 second introduction to the film score throws all the electronic music cards on the table, the mood futuristic yet ambiguous. Less than a minute into the second track and you know this isn’t going to be a cheerful or particularly romantic work. The nature of the music itself is evenly split between the string quartet and the laptop with the occasional harmonica marking a change in the wind. Spooky wrote the music. The Kronos Quartet, a string group known for its forays into new music (Terry Riley, John Cage, Phillip Glass) and its diverse genres (Mexican folk, acid rock, movie scores) are the musicians here, and they are fully up to the task of working with and around the “deep sense of fragmentation” that Spooky says, “occurs in the mind of a DJ” who “crafts physical form around an idea.”
Spooky relies on the usual techniques of soundtrack work such as repetition and the revisitation of themes, but he doesn’t use them as crutches. The themes are sticky and haunting and the repetition amplifies the tension. “North Isn’t South” is a good case-in-point. While a synthesizer cycles through a minor key repetition of themes (an ostinato), in a variety of keys, the Kronos ensemble sustains their overhead notes indefinitely. With or without visuals, it’s a stunning piece of music.
Nailing the score to any particular genre is impossible. Spooky is a sample-artist after all and here he samples everything. While “Gettysburg Requiem” borrows from modern classical, “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” sounds like it could be handed over to Massive Attack without anyone batting an eye. The strings and harmonica give off very faint signals of old-timey forms with enough production overcast to mask any recognizable origins. “Music is always a metaphor,” Spooky writes in Rhythm Science. “It’s an open signifier, an invisible, utterly malleable material. It’s not fixed…Rhythm science uses an endless recontextualizing as a core compositional strategy, and some of this generation’s most important artists continually remind us that there are innumerable ways to arrange the mix.”
Which sounds like musician-ese for what Hayden White has notoriously said about history, that there is no master narrative, no verifiable version of reality (Metahistory, 1973) For White, history too is about the way you arrange the mix (your “facts” are my “rumors” so they don’t make it into my version of the story). Like DJs, novelists and historians are, Spooky tells us, “griots, and whether their stories are conscious or unconscious, narratives are implicit in the sampling idea. Every story leads to another story to another story to another story.” And another story is precisely what Spooky tries to give us here. When official history and artistic “masterworks” are contaminated with racist ideology, what you can do is cut-them-up, sample them, give them a different score. Remind us that history is just another form of storytelling, and if you want to know how inclusive it is, you need to look at who exactly is doing the mix.