Premi Mohanavelu and Lauren Piper
Rebirth of a Nation was released in 2007 and was created by Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky. It is a response film to Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith which was released in 1915. Rebirth of a Nation uses film from Birth of a Nation and formats its intertitles in a similar way. The main characters in both films are played by George Siegmann, Lillian Gish, Henry B. Wathall, and Ralph Lewis, notably all white actors. Birth of a Nation follows the story of Ben Cameron, a Confederate colonel, who survives the Civil War and founds the Ku Klux Klan, battling his lover’s father and his African American protégé. In Rebirth of a Nation, DJ Spooky primarily focuses on the Reconstruction era of the original movie during which Cameron creates the Ku Klux Klan, which brushes over the romance and character development in the first half to focus on the inhumanity of his actions. Aside from the cinematic aspects of the film that DJ Spooky edits, he also uses inter-titles to describes the attitudes of historical figures from the early twentieth century towards race relations. Rebirth of a Nation not only serves as a twenty-first century response to the explicitly racist film Birth of a Nation but also highlights the misrepresentation of African Americans in film based on attitudes held after the end of slavery.
Historical and Cultural Context:
Since Rebirth of a Nation is a critique of the film Birth of a Nation, it is important to understand the historical context of the original film. When Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, the prevalent racist message and blackface was met with little opposition from white Americans of the day. Although this may be
in part to the acceptance of white supremacy, white viewers were also easily distracted by the voluminous soundtrack and dramatic editing employed by D. W. Griffith. The film was also the first time that the general public was exposed to techniques such as iris shots, close-ups, and parallel actions, which lead people to believe that Griffith had used actual footage from the Civil War (Cheshire). Birth of a Nation was also used as a recruitment film for the Ku Klux Klan, which was revived from its suppression by the government in 1871. In the movie, the Ku Klux Klan is praised with a title card that describes the Klan as “the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule” (Rebirth of a Nation). On the other hand, the NAACP also experienced an increase in membership due to the film as there were protests held at screenings. There were also aspects of the national civil rights activism that had its roots in the protests against Birth of a Nation (Cheshire).The works of Paul Miller have significant afro-post modernist influences. Afro-postmodernism can be best described as an “aesthetic orientation within the arts that developed out of (and in partial reaction to) modernism during the decades following the Second World War” within many Afro-logical forms of art, including hip-hop and DJing (Stewart). Specifically, in Rebirth of a Nation, Paul Miller challenges us to examine our own identities in relation to the postmodern world in which we live. In live performances of the film, Miller inserts dance footage with infl
uences of African American dance in the South by well-known African American choreographer Bill T. Jones (Stewart). In some scenes, the graceful dancers seem to interact with the awkward and warped motions of the white actors in blackface portraying their depictions of African American actions. Paul Miller highlights how white Americans during Griffith’s time perceived African Americans as inferior and refused to hire African American actors to depict a more realistic representation. Miller also uses images related to gridlines, circuitry, and blueprints to call attention to the portrayals of African Americans in Birth of a Nation. The use of symbols related to blueprints serves as a metaphor to how perceptions of African Americans were constructed during the time of slavery. Paul Miller argues that these perceptions have been ingrained in society and continue to influence race relations in America today.
Themes and Style:
In this work, instead of relying solely on language, DJ Spooky uses many different media elements to bring his point across. He uses the words written into the movie Birth of a Nation to tell his story and does not add any of his own commentary within the work except in the introduction. In this way, Rebirth of a Nation is dependent on the written aspect of the old film, and DJ Spooky’s transformation of the meaning of his work is visual and auditory. However, when this film was written, everyone spoke very formally, so the text somewhat contrasts the futuristic mood he sets with some of his music. Additionally his performance of the work changes every time. He gives an explanation of his work as an introduction then plays his music, usually DJing on the spot, for the duration of the film Birth of a Nation. He mixes both songs from older times and radio hits you might hear today. This gives the film a more personal connection because his audience of all ages will recognize at least one of the songs he uses. Overall, his performance is seemingly casual. His attire ranges from a button down shirt to normal street clothes, a hoodie and jeans or sweatpants.
A major theme in his work is drawing the audience’s attention to the racism in the work and not overlooking it to appreciate the bigger picture. He does this by overlaying images and colors specifically pointing out scenes of mistreatment. For example, in one scene, a white man was attempting to take advantage of a female black slave, and the woman was targeted on inside of a triangle making her the focal point of the scene. The specific focus on the issue of racism that DJ Spooky imposes on the work tells the audience a lot about the past and how these things were overlooked and regarded as normal for the time period in which the film was made. Another way DJ Spooky draws attention to the racism in the movie is by the different music that plays in each scene. In controversial scenes, the songs resemble those you would hear in a horror movie right as the killer is about to jump out of the closet. These type of sounds are used because people are trained to be on edge when they hear them, and DJ Spooky is telling them that they should be uncomfortable during scenes of mistreatment.
One important descriptor of the culture when Birth of a Nation was created is the lack of black actors. White actors and actresses wore blackface in order to portray blacks. They also imitated what they thought black people act like. In speaking roles they used increased amount of hand motions to signify that blacks were not as literate and smart as whites. One specific example of this is when the woman was being taken advantage of, she did not seem resistant at all and acted excited to be touched by a white man. These aspects of the film depict the lack of respect for blacks not only during the time period the film was made but also the many years it went unquestioned. DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation and its popularity recognize the change in society’s view towards black people and the movement for change seen in the past 50 years. This widespread appreciation for black culture as well as black accomplishments has just recently begun to affect the movie industry with the filming of works with predominantly black casts such as Black Panther and Empire. This progress has also been seen in the field of prestigious awards with increasing amounts of black nominations and victories.
Birth of a Nation has historically been highly acclaimed mainly because of the quality of cinematography it was produced with long before the technology was popular in the industry. The issue is that critics have failed to separate the praiseworthy media from the racist storyline. That is where DJ Spooky comes in to separate the two and change the viewpoints of those who only look to the film as an American Classic as opposed to a sign our country was in need of change. Many film teachers teach the same message of change produced by DJ Spooky, so his viewpoint is credib
le and replicated across the country. One of these professors is actor Paul McEwan who teaches a film class at Northwestern University. He discusses with his students the fact that during the time the original movie Birth of a Nation came out, there were indeed some bad reviews criticizing the race element. This proves that not everyone in the past agreed with slavery, but because of society’s hatred for blacks, even those who did not agree did not speak up for fear of consequences (McEwan). Another expert on Birth of a Nation is Randy Roberts a College of Liberal Arts professor of Film Studies at Purdue University. He claims that this movie was influential in paving the way for the future of films. Over the years, work has been done to separate the artistic aspect of the film from the message it is promoting in order to have people focus more on the positives and what we can learn from it (Roberts). However, there is only so much people can look past. This is why DJ Spooky’s work is appreciated by so many in today’s society. Instead of looking past the injustice, he focuses in on it so that one day it will change.
Many professionals in the art and technology field rave about Spooky’s brilliance in his ability to seamlessly blend culturally black art in the forms of his music with a strikingly white film. Most of his praise comes from professionals in his field of study. Birringer, a renowned artistic director commented, “What’s surprising about DJ Spooky’s tracks is that they mix music with early modernist writers.” Spooky travels across the country performing Rebirth of a Nation from places such as The Kennedy Center to Millenium Park. Because his theme of the progress of society matches the progress seen today, he receives many positive reviews. His work is intellectual in nature and therefore is not publicized like a Hollywood movie would be.
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Capps, Kriston. “Why Remix The Birth of a Nation?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 23 May 2017, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/05/dj-spooky-is-remixing-birth-of-a-nation/527472/.
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Keywords: Afro-postmodernism, DJ Spooky, Progression, Audience focus, Racism in Film