It was an evening like few others in the company of of hundreds at The Kennedy Center on a recent evening. What took place was a performance meant to strike a hot chord for cultural and political audacity. And that it did very easily for me. I was ripe and ready for it.
In these days when national and local DC area communities are struggling mightily with what do about the legacy of the Civil War and its many remaining artifacts, The Kennedy Center had a one performance, multi-media film and live music event conceived by and hosted by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky, it was Rebirth of a Nation featuring the live string quartet Sound Impact.
How much more relevant and timely (even if only a coincidence in timing) for ReBirth of a Nation to appear now for audiences ( I make a presumption that the patrons were mainly local folk and not tourists) to take in at the nation’s arts and cultural center. In the past weeks here locally, there have been visible Civil War-related controversies that have received plenty of notice in the news. There are heated disputes for the proposed removal of the name of a Civil War general from a public school (Fairfax County’s J.E.B. Stuart High School), a political storm for the suggestion for a major highway name change (Alexandria’s portion of Jefferson Davis Highway) and debates in the border state of Maryland over the proposed physical removal of a Confederate soldier statue standing tall on government property in Rockville.
So, what was ReBirth of a Nation about? It was certainly much more than a minimal visual setting of three large screens for projected film images on the Eisenhower Theater stage with chairs for a live string quartet on one side of the stage and a DJ mix table on the other. Way more.
ReBirth of a Nation began with a short TED-like talk by Miller before a film and live music performance that re-imagined and witheringly focused all its passion on truth seeking and race relations. ReBirth used D.W. Griffith’s famous 1915 silent movie The Birth of a Nation, about the aftermath of the Civil War in some fictional Southern tow, as its pivot point into issues of race. Miller’s ReBirth deconstructed and then reconstructed the original Birth of a Nation film’s own projected images along with newly created title cards to show the racist nature of the original Birth of a Nation.
As Miller noted in his short introductory remarks, the original Birth haunts the American cultural landscape even today. Miller further conveyed that the original Birth of a Nation movie was the mass media, if not social media, of its day. It reaching out on to the wide public with harsh, negative, hateful depictions of African-Americans.
With his remixed, re-edited footage from the original Birth, Miller created, at least to me, an on-point critique of D. W. Griffith’s far-from silent opinions about race. Miller’s ReBirth of a Nation, succeeded in peeling away layer upon layer from an original three-hour piece of artistic propaganda to present its true nature.
Miller deftly exposed Birth of a Nation’s essential message of racism. He did it by parsing the original film so it spoke loudly for itself, even with its silence. Miller did add inventive, contemporary-look, technology–based graphics to highlight particular mean-spirited characters. And then there was the impressive on-stage live aural fuel of original live string music played by Sound Impact and a mix of electronic music and notes from vinyl as Miller transformed into DJ Spooky. His music mix covered hip-hop, funk and jazz to propel ReBirth scenes and forward the overall action.. The plaintive string sounds from the Sound Impact quartet often gave me darker moods and shivers not unlike “Ashokan Farewell” from the PBS television series, The Civil War from some years back..
ReBirth of a Nation, was a vivid lesson and just polemic in artistic deconstruction and political theory made visible as it reformulated an artistic icon of a film and long-time negative cultural “truths.” Miller shaped his re-edited ReBirth to have little nuance, there was not place to hide from its drum-beat. Let me provide just a few examples highlighted by Miller’s remix. A black man gives his hand out to a white man for a handshake; he is rebuffed. Interracial marriage is presented as an impossibility with the clear suggestion of force if not rape of a white woman and another white woman committing suicide rather than succumb to a man of color. What are depicted as positive or cowardly are read in by the race of an individual on the screen. (A scene of men clade in white robes and hoods riding on horses to the rescue of a family was like the helicopters in Apocalypse Now with Wagner pulsating as the helicopters swoop in to destroy a Vietcong leaning village to save it).
Miller aimed to change the cultural terrain for those at The Kennedy Center. He succeeded with me by exposing the “false narrative” of the original Birth of a Nation. He connected a 100 year old film with its harsh cultural message to current times. With Miller’s creative talents and new technology, little seemed to be fixed tight and unchangeable as the evening education and entertainment progressed. Miller is clearly a master public and progressive intellectual as a keen disrupter in an age when little is solid with so much built on pixels, clicks, algorithms and ultimately quicksand to make a quick buck at someone else’s expense. The evening gave me hope
Running time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
ReBirth of a Nation by Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky featuring Sound Impact was performed on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, at 8 p.m. in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information on upcoming Kennedy Center events, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.