Brow Beat

DJ Spooky’s “Birth of a Nation” Remix

In 1915, D.W. Griffith, a Kentucky-born director who’d shot the first-ever movie in Hollywood, Calif., released The Birth of a Nation , a 190-minute film that imported old American horrors into a new medium. The movie is an extraordinarily elaborate piece of Ku Klux Klan propaganda, recasting the Civil War in order to blame secession and the ailments of Reconstruction on black people. Despite its heinous content (and because of it), Griffith’s production is regarded even today as a cinematic milestone, the first feature-length film ever to use careful montage—crosscuts, jump-cuts, deep focus—to weave a contrapuntal story on the screen.

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In a piece just screened at New York’s MoMA, Paul D. Miller (nom de guerre: DJ Spooky ) “remixes” Griffith’s movie to expose the undergirding of its racism and to explore its success as agitprop. Rebirth of a Nation (also recently released on DVD ), introduces what Miller calls “DJ as director”—the idea that a film, like a remixed song, can be composed through a director’s selective use of source material.

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Miller’s version plays with the atmospherics of Griffith’s reels—inserting “PDM”-initialed title cards in place of Griffith’s notorious “DWG” originals, backing scenes with a contemporary soundtrack (ranging from harmonica blues to light techno), and recutting the film to tighten the story and highlight Griffith’s devious art. The shot in which Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant, for instance—a passing moment in the original—becomes, in Miller’s remix, sinister: A roving viewfinder zooms in on the generals’ handshake as the tobacco tip of Grant’s cigar glows red against the sepia projection, signifying not so much peace as a realignment of white interests.

It’s easy to regard Miller’s remix as the YouTube sensibility gone conceptual—or more conceptual than usual—in the name of historical justice. Yet it’s also an effort to beat Griffith at his own game. The Birth of a Nation was itself a project in historical revision, one that also bore the burnish of a new medium. What surprised me most about Rebirth wasn’t the way Miller applied today’s technology to the prewar film. It was how little was actually remixed. For all the cosmetic revisions and minor structural changes, the arc of Griffith’s story (and the raw force of its propaganda) is left intact, even helped along. In doing so, Miller blurs the line between his artistic choices and those of the original, drawing our attention to Griffith’s own DJ-like selectiveness. What was The Birth of a Nation , after all, if not a loathsome remix of the history books?

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