Saturday, December 13, 2008

Second Birth Same As The First

When I saw that DJ Spooky's Rebirth Of A Nation was coming to DVD I was anxious to see. DJ Spooky, real name Paul D. Miller, is known for reworking all sorts of sonic concepts including speeches and and avant garde jazz and this was his reworking of D.W. Griffith's infamous film, Birth Of A Nation, supposedly in a way that emphasized the film's underlying racism and tied it in to the present. Now I've seen the disc and my first thought was "That was it?".

The only real modifications are an interesting score performed by the Kronos Quartet occasional computer graphics to emphasize certain characters and scenes and editing about a hour out of the film that tightens the story. Other than that there is narration that calls attention to the film being a distortion of history that canonizes the Ku Klux Klan and portrays black people as either loyal childlike servants or lustful brutes out to defile white women. The thing is that any modern person with a brain in his head could see all that without having someone draw pointedtly draw attention to the facts.

I saw Birth Of A Nation in a unversity film class back in the Seventies and there the entire class took note of the film craft but laughed at the now-absurd portrayal of the Klan as heroes. It was obvious then and it's obvious today. Of course that was an era when the Civil Rights struggles were still fresh in people's minds and movies like Blazing Saddles really lampooned racism.

What really annoyed me about the DVD presentation was that it came off like this propaganda had always been taken seriously without any dissenting viewpoint ever arising since 1915. In reality black society denounced the film almost as soon as it came out. One particular section with a white Southern family in a cabin besieged by black soldiers actually reminded me of a film that came out a mere five years after Birth, Within Our Gates by early black filmmarker Oscar Micheaux. I don't know if it was meant as a response to Birth but it did have a similar scene that was far more based in reality with jealous Southern whites terrorizing and burning out a successful black family. It even included the grim image of a lynched black man. No, it certainly wasn't as well known as Birth but it shows that alternatives to Birth's idyllic white South have always been out there.

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