Judge Adam Arseneau thinks Lillian Gish is a dish.
DJ Spooky's provocative "remix" of D.W. Griffith's infamous masterpiece.
D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation is a proverbial landmine film, one that is cinematically groundbreaking and influential as it is hateful and degenerating. It is impossible to discuss without putting one's weight upon it and having shrapnel tear you asunder. For better or worse, it is the first Hollywood blockbuster, a film of massive scope that thrilled audiences and incited riots back in 1915 when it debuted to both praise and condemnation. Also, in case you haven't heard, it is really, really racist. It is a challenging film to discuss in the open, because praising it in any way kind of makes you feel dirty—the kind of dirt that doesn't come off.
Enter DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, noted ambient hip-hop musician and instrumentalist with DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation, a "cinematic remix" of the controversial American cinematic piece. Like a DJ attacks vinyl records with two turntables and a mixer, DJ Spooky sets out to attack Birth of a Nation, updating it for modern times, giving it the historical and social context required to appreciate its glories and condemn its flaws. Originally commissioned as a live multimedia performance, the idea of this project sounds fantastic: a DJ-centric mix of an inflammatory yet historically relevant film copied and pasted and scratched to deconstruct its base elements. How cool is that? DJ Spooky makes some pretty bodacious music, so I was extremely excited to see what a creative fellow could do to such an inflammatory piece of American cinema.
DJ Spooky has taken the original Birth of a Nation, added a decorative frame on the outside, set it to ambient hip-hop and narrates talking points all over the silent film, essentially turning a dramatic narrative film into a documentary about race relations. It all has the feel of an undergraduate thesis in film theory set to film, a verbal essay paired with the film itself as the narrator drones on about the various techniques utilized by Griffith to manipulate his audiences. Outside of a few color filters and doodles drawn on the screen, there is nothing "remixed" about this film; it is simply Birth of a Nation with a better soundtrack.
So why bother with the "remix"? The ideas put forth by the narrator run crosswise against the narrative, challenging viewers to delve into the more controversial racial aspects of Griffith's film—which is good in principle. We get a detailed breakdown of how the film portrays race, both directly and indirectly, and suggestions as to how these tropes have persisted throughout American society today. The points are argued well, albeit extremely heavy handedly in the condemnation of Griffith and his work, making it (almost impossibly) more racist, more hateful, and more disturbing than many would originally infer. It is an aggressive take on an aggressive film, a heavy handed approach to a film laden with manipulation, historical revisionism, and shameful displays of racism.
I do applaud the good intentions that went into a remix project applied to cinema. This is a fantastic idea in its own right, but so much more could have been done here. Rebirth of a Nation fails to achieve anything of note beyond its pedigree and a few talking points of note. The narrative overdubs discussing the flagrant racism, manipulation of historic events, and cinematic techniques counterbalance Griffith's original cinematic intentions to glorify the rise of white Southern power, but in such a painfully academic and preachy way. What little it adds to the original could be lifted note from note from a first-year university class on film theory and civil rights. The ideas put forth here are not particularly original, and adding a few colored filters does not a "remix" make.
Where the film goes astray is how feverishly it argues the importance of Griffith's film in defining the last hundred years of American relations vis-à-vis whites and blacks. Birth of a Nation is an important work to be sure, one of notable historical importance (for its inaccuracies as much as its accuracies). However, its influence on popular culture is all but forgotten, save for history buffs or film theory nerds. For the most part, the film stays on point, but on occasion, the suggestions made in Rebirth of a Nation borderline on the absurd—akin to suggesting that Triumph of the Will made every white person who watched it into an Aryan superman. Hint: it didn't.
By modern standards, Birth of a Nation is a downright hateful and anachronistic film, full of shameful stereotypes and overt racism, all of which should be immediately obviously to anyone who watches it. Why we need somebody holding our hand along the way, telling us how racist Birth of a Nation is beyond me. The film is plenty inflammatory on its own, and that's okay! Do we really need somebody trying to make the argument that Birth of a Nation can be cited as an influence to the U.S. government's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina? Honestly? That's a stretch. If you can't watch Birth of a Nation, warts and all, and draw your own conclusions, then you've got some problems, my friend. You shouldn't need DJ Spooky to tell you otherwise.
Aside from the anamorphic presentation framing the original full-frame source material, Rebirth of a Nation offers an expectedly bad visual presentation of a crotchety old film—print damage is rampant, scratches are plentiful, etc., but it looks no worse than other DVD copies of Birth of a Nation. Where the disc shines is in the audio, offering DJ Spooky's pleasantly moody and moving score in full surround 5.1 and stereo. The surround is punchy yet mellow, offering nice bass response and excellent full mixing into rear channels. The score does not always mesh with the film from a thematic standpoint, but DJ Spooky's music is too good to be denied—a standalone soundtrack would be fantastic. The only supplement included is an entirely superfluous audio commentary with director/writer/creator Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, who speaks intelligently and passionately about his motivations for creating the remix. It is a good commentary all told, but it boils down to more of the same—we already get Miller narrating the film itself, dropping knowledge every few seconds here and there. In case that gets boring, now you have another audio channel of him doing…more of it!
As a groundbreaking remix project, Rebirth of a Nation fizzles, but the point-counterpoint fact-checking make for an intriguing intellectual exercise for cinema lovers. DJ Spooky's "remix" may fail outright in living up to a "creative reworking," but since it is admittedly quite difficult to tell people that Birth of a Nation is a must-see film without sounding like a douchebag, it's nice to have a viable alternative. And with a better soundtrack to boot!
Since the core of the film has for the most part been left alone, one can watch Rebirth of a Nation and get both experiences simultaneously: D.W. Griffith's original, controversial-yet-impressive cinematic creation, and DJ Spooky's educational primer on how Griffith made everyone in America an asshole for the next hundred years.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary
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