'Rebirth of a Nation' visits film's racism

— In 1915, "The Birth of a Nation" changed the art of filmmaking. It also celebrated the Ku Klux Klan as heroes of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Now the movie itself is under reconstruction.

The artist and musician DJ Spooky is treating the seminal but racist film like a piece of music -- he's doing a "remix." Spooky's work-in-progress, titled "Rebirth of a Nation," was shown at the American Museum of the Moving Image this week.

Spooky chose D.W. Griffiths' "Birth" precisely because it deals with issues of race. By manipulating it, and showing how it can be changed, he hopes to show how images and ideas about race are mutable as well.

"In one era, race is one thing. In another ... it changes," the DJ said. "There's never one final answer for any of this, it's always a remix."

Carl Goodman, curator of digital media at the museum, called it "sampling cinema."

"By allowing people to play with and remix and reconfigure the media of the past, it becomes a powerful form of commentating," Goodman said.

On Thursday night, Spooky projected the film onto a large screen, adding layers of visual effects. An image of a fully robed Klansman underlays the scene depicting the South's surrender at the end of the war. An image of a young Southern woman looking at cotton cloth for a dress was followed by an image of slaves picking cotton.

Spooky also added material, such as images of a dance performance inspired by Southern history. And the soundtrack was, of course, his creation, a mix that ranged from a rendition of "Dixieland" to the type of beat-driven music one would hear in a club.

Spooky, born Paul Miller, has recorded with musicians ranging from Yoko One to Wu-Tang Clan's Killa Priest.

Spooky said he planned to travel with the project and was working out arrangements to show it internationally.

"Birth" is a milestone in American screen history, an epic production that changed how movies were filmed and edited with its use of massive numbers of extras, on-location shoots and camera close-ups.

It also outraged many people with its stereotypical, racist portrayals of black people and its embrace of the Klan.


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