By Bobbi Booker
Pictured: Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky in the midst of a multi-media presentation of “The ReBirth of a Nation.”
Nearly a century after it’s cinematic release, D.W. Griffith “The Birth of a Nation” remains one of the most influential and controversial films in the history of cinema. Although the 1915 movie’s innovative technical achievements were hailed, the film’s Civil War themes also drew protests due to its controversial promotion of white supremacism and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, who continue to actively use it as a recruiting tool.
The film’s politics made Birth of a Nation divisive when it was released drew significant protest from Blacks across the nation. Riots broke out in Philadelphia and other major cities because it was said to create an atmosphere that encouraged gangs of whites to attack blacks.
So why is noted independent artist, writer, producer, and musician Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, revisiting the controversial movie in the 21st Century? Because, he says, to forget the past is to repeat it.
“My whole theory about everything right now is that Black culture is a sign of strength and maturity and also just an ability to say that these are issues that don’t define us anymore,” explained Miller. “There a very famous phrase that says, ‘Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.’ And I think in the era of Condi Rice or Colin Powell, or for that matter Barack Obama as one of the first Black senators to be elected since the end of Reconstruction, there’s a lot of issues that are still lingering. So, I look at my Rebirth of a Nation project as saying there’s strength to understanding the dynamics of history. A lot of these issues are still a part of the basic vocabulary of how we think about American culture, whether you look at Flavor Flav’s Flavor of Love where he’s dressed like a minstrel from the late 19th century or the political dynamics of how Barack Obama is flowing.”
“Birth” smashed previous box office records, while ushering in a new standard in films: feature length movies. In its day, it was the highest grossing film, taking in more than $10 million at the box office. The movie’s controversy stemmed from the way it expressed the racist views held by many in the era in its depiction Southern pre-Civil War Black slavery as benign, and the Ku Klux Klan as a band of heroes restoring order to a post-Reconstruction Black-ruled South).
Eventually, Griffith would try to denounce prejudice in his next film “Intolerance” by showing how slavery was wrong, but his legacy would forever remain tied to “Birth of a Nation”. Miller deconstructs and remixes the original movie by applying DJ technique to cinema as an engagement with film, music, and contemporary art.
“I think it’s one of those films that set the tone for how you think about mass culture,” said Miller. “It was the first film that the term blockbuster was created for because so many people would go to see it that they lined up around the block. Also, the film was meant to be a rebellious statement at that time, but it was a rebellion of what whites viewed as politically correct situation and I view it as an ironic kind of reductionist situation.”
Miller is accustomed to creative exploration and intellectual debate, having been seeped in academia since his birth in 1970. Even his moniker is an arcane reference to a character in a William S. Burroughs novel. As the namesake son of Howard University’s dean of law (who died when Miller was three) and his mother, author Rosemary Reed Miller, who ran an international fabric shop off Dupont Circle, Miller spent much of his childhood in Washington, D.C.’s nurturing bohemia before studying philosophy and literature at Bowdoin.
“I grew up in a household where intellectualism was celebrated,” explained Miller.
“I have to admit, it’s okay to be intellectual and I really enjoy that. And I want people to think that Black culture is just about hip hop, but there also is a whole intellectual relationship going on.”
Today, he serves as professor of music mediated art at the European Graduate School in between his global travels as an internationally renowned DJ. Miller was one of the first international artists invited recently to play in Angola where a 20-year tribal war just ended.
“What I’m trying to do is get people to think that DJ culture is about remixing and sampling, flipping beats in different directions, but also it’s about flipping visual rhythm,” noted Miller. “I wouldn’t say that Griffith was getting jiggy or anything, in fact he’d probably be turning in his grave, but that’s kind of the point. The 21st Century is going to get wilder and more intriguing and my film, as a remix, is a celebration of that.”
The Gordon Thether, 3rd & Pearl Street (at base of Ben Franklin bridge) on Rutgers-Camden University campus, hosted DJ Spooky’s multimedia presentation “Rebirth of a Nation” at 8p.m., Friday April 13th, 2007 proceed by free panel discussion at 6 p.m.
=Originally Published in The Philadelphia Tribune on Friday, April 13, 2007=