It's important to reexamine America's racist past, but is it enough to simply recontextualize the same old images? For better or worse, DJ Spooky throws down the gauntlet, remixing and recasting DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a NationCity: Camden, NJ
Venue: Rutgers University, Gordon Theater
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.