Released in the winter of 1915, Birth of a Nation is an unquestionably important film. Arguably the first full-length feature ever made, it pioneered early movie-making techniques and storytelling strategies, introducing America and the world to high-budget filmmaking and jumpstarting the movie industry as we know it. Of course, it also glorified the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and demonized black people. Protested by the NAACP and other progressive groups, the film was banned in cities across the country after riots broke out in the wake of its premiere. It rallied a flagging KKK and is considered to be responsible for at least one race-related murder. It remains controversial for its incitement of racial fears, its depiction of miscegenation, and its praise of white supremacy. And for good reason: the haunting eyes of silent-film actresses quivering at the proximity of looming men in black face, the parade of white-clad KKK heroes on white horses, a raucous courtroom full of black men drinking booze with bare feet — these images populate the screen, a blight of early 20th-century racism untempered by the mid-century struggle for civil rights and ‘90s political correctness. Needless to say, it’s rife with meanings to be questioned, juxtaposed, redefined, mashed up, and spit out, and who better to do that then the philosopher-king of remix culture? An ongoing exhibition/touring project, DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation uses both added filmic effects and musical remixes to reimagine the aging tale through a modern lens. And what better place to address some of these issues than Rutgers University, the school at the ugly end of the recent Imus controversy? The Gordon Theater, a large university affair on the campus of Rutgers-Camden, was more than half empty, a disappointing turnout for an event that should appeal to the culture vulture in all of us. After a brief introduction by a giddy DJ from a local radio station, the tiny audience got a brief and warm welcome from DJ Spooky. Then a mesmerizing animation of the world’s flags flashed on the three screens behind DJ Spooky. A guitar howled the Star-Spangled Banner, and the two most heavily imbued symbols of nation-ness — flags and anthems — overtook our senses. After the onslaught of color and guitar, the sound waned, and the primary colors of flags gave way to the subtle grays of the early black-and-white film.
The title pages of the original film were decorated in the frilly lines of crass art nouveau, with director D. W. Griffiths’ name and initials integrated on the border. DJ Spooky — aka Paul D. Miller — flipped the authorship of the script and ornamented its intertitles with his initials, PDM. The bar was set, and high at that. What ensued, though, just couldn’t live up: simple effects, overlays of maps and floor plans, and mixes with images of dancers did very little to extrapolate or comment on the film’s original message. DJ Spooky remained faithful to the narrative structure. The story of a white family that went from being proud Southern slave owners to downtrodden victims of Northern politics and chaotic black rule to heroic clansmen was left intact, and, with it, the portrayal of newly freed slaves as derelict and Klansmen as gallant. Surprisingly little was done to the imagery and to the narrative structure to undermine the message of the film. The music was lush, minimal, dark, and occasionally filmic: a layer of dark melodies, hip hop beats, and electronic glitches fed the action of the film. There’s nothing like watching a cavalry of Klansmen on three screens, their horses’ hooves folied with hip-hop, or slaves dancing to a scratching record, conjuring up questions about the origins of hip hop in the long, turbulent history of black America. The magic of a remix for something as visually potent as Birth of a Nation is the new meanings generated from colliding images and reconfigured texts. Juggling signifiers and signified images should demonstrate not only awe-inspiring trickery but also a new understanding of something old. The very title Rebirth of a Nation claims a profound restructuring of the film’s meaning – it indicates the birth of something new. But what I found was that Birth of a Nation got a pass. Instead of being subverted, the infamous film became eye candy for an admittedly great set of music. DJ Spooky just didn’t wring out the complexities of the film’s problematic take on race. DJ Spooky described what we saw as “a sketch” for the final cut of the film, to be released later this year. Perhaps in the final version, it will be further remixed and extract deeper questions about the film’s significance as both a milestone and an icon for America’s dark past and deepest racial fears. Maybe the score of hip-hop and electronica will be enough to challenge the meanings in the film when you see it on the small screen at home. But in the context of a theater, the original home to this dark and disturbing milestone, one couldn’t help but hope for more.