D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was the first film in American history to be screened at the White House—and while that may seem like quite a triumph, the tale it tells is deeply tragic.
Released in 1915, the silent epic drama film is based on the novel and play “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon, Jr. If the title didn’t already give it away, the film is three hours of racist propaganda portraying an extremely biased (and honestly, downright offensive) account of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era.
And it’s more than just a film: this movie helped lead to the creation of Hollywood—as one of the first pieces of sophisticated, mass-produced cinematic media, its message became embedded in our country’s history, art, and ethos. Its reverberations can be felt even now, 100 years later.
Electronic artist Paul D. Miller (better known as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid) reflects on the cultural significance of this film in his large-scale multimedia performance piece, aptly titled “Rebirth of a Nation.” The ongoing interdisciplinary project includes a documentary film, site-specific performances around the world, and, most recently, a new album.
Recorded with the fearlessly experimental Kronos Quartet, “Rebirth of a Nation” is conceived as a remix and reimagination of Griffith’s original film. Miller remixed, remastered, and resynced the original score, taking a critical look at society’s racial politics and making a musical statement about it.
You can watch the trailer for the project here:
“We need more than ever to see the context that early cinema offers us,” Miller said. “As my old friend Saul Williams likes to say: Another World Is Possible. A remix of a film as deeply important and problematic as ‘The Birth of a Nation’ reminds us that, in the era of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, many of these issues still linger with us at every level.”
The album itself retells the story through 19 short pieces for string quartet and electronics, creating a colorful, fractured, and fragmented collage of American History. Miller layers the classical strings with hip hop, folk, gospel, and blues elements, combines them with drum beats and electronic echoes, and resynthesizes them into a musical mashup of American history—thus expressing, without words, a history of racial (and musical) complexity that Griffith’s original film sought to suppress.
“Collage is the collective unconscious,” Miller said of his creative inspiration. “Sound is a phenomenon that’s totally open, so there are no real boundaries unless you make them. I like to think of all sound as just patterns, so there’s no reason to think we can’t just add patterns, subtract patterns.”
The result is a series of over a dozen unique soundscapes, each telling its own fragment of a larger story: the history of U.S. slavery and the ongoing struggle for racial equality. With ominous, grim titles like “Gettysburg Requiem,” “Ride of the Klansmen,” “Lincoln and Booth get Acquainted,” and “Ghost of a Smile,” Miller’s music tackles many of our country’s most challenging and emotionally-charged political issues. The pieces are haunting, often even hypnotic—but they certainly get you thinking.
Musically, Miller portrays Civil War and Reconstruction era America as a desolate electronic wasteland—but as he travels through this metallic and industrial landscape, he discovers and explores a number of hidden treasures: a soulful blues melody here, a folky harmonica riff there, an infectious hip hop beat beneath him or a trancelike drone just around the corner.
“From almost every angle, this kind of creativity celebrates collage, a willful breakdown of boundaries, and a playfulness that would aggravate almost anyone,” Miller said of his compositional process. “That’s kind of the point. That’s where I looked for inspiration.”
And it extends beyond music, too: the film and site-specific performances recreate the project again and again, making full use of the artistic possibilities of today’s digital age.
“Multi-disciplinary art is crucial these days,” Miller said. “It’s the way we live now. The year 2015 is science fiction for me, but we are still using the imagination of a different era to describe a cultural milieu that has evolved more rapidly than anyone anticipated. That’s kind of like using an old bicycle to race an F-34 Joint Strike Force fighter jet. It’s apples and oranges; it doesn’t make sense. That’s the paradox at the heart of my ‘Rebirth of a Nation’ film project.”
And in exploring this paradox, in critically examining that deep, dark part of American history that “The Birth of a Nation” portrays, Miller is able ultimately to offer a message of hope: We do have the power to reexamine and remix our past—and we likewise have the power to reform our present and our future.
“The realm of the possible is always greater than the realm of the real,” Miller said. “I try to navigate between the two: that’s art.”