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Rebirth of a Word, a Film, a Slur

DJ Spooky tackles D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation,' 'taking back' one of the most racist releases in film history – and bringing the idea of re-appropriation into the digital age.
"It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." – President Woodrow Wilson, quoted in early prints of D.W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation.

About a decade back, Bangladeshi and Pakistani teenagers in England began re-appropriating the dreaded "Paki" word. Once a vicious epithet flung on London streets by white skinheads, the word was now a symbol of an assertive brown community. "Paki Power" graffiti appeared, a clothing label called "Pak1" did the rounds and Aki Nawaz of punk-asian band Fun^Da^Men^Tal told the press, "We're not Pacifists, we're Pakifists!"

"Taking back" racist epithets has long been a cultural touchstone, and a touchy one at that. I took to greeting my British Asian friends with "Paki", but only when we were alone, never in front of white Brits. One day, I called my friend Usman and his father answered the phone. Mistaking his voice for his son, I launched into "Oii Paki, it's Naeem!" The long, pained silence on the other end spoke volumes about how the older generation viewed this act of re-appropriation. He was horrified and disappointed in our lack of "historical context."

I was reminded of this incident recently as another "old man" grabbed headlines with his livid denunciation of "nigger" or the "n word." In a Jesse Jackson-hosted event, Bill Cosby told the audience, "When you put on a record and that record is yelling 'n – – - this and n – – - that' and you've got your little 6-year-old, 7-year-old sitting in the back seat of the car, those children hear that."

It's easy to dismiss Cosby as out of touch with youth culture. But the debate he touched off is raging elsewhere as well. Re-appropriation has now spread to other areas of race, gender and sexual identity. It is also not limited to words, but includes images, songs and films. The best example in film is musician and conceptual artist DJ Spooky's audacious new work, Rebirth of a Nation, a re-imagining of D.W. Griffith's racism-infected masterpiece Birth of a Nation. In the 2004 reincarnation, Spooky combines segments of the Griffith film overlaid with hallucinatory visual effects, including footage of dance legend Bill T. Jones in a piece inspired by Black Southern history.

In the original Birth of a Nation, the accompanying music for racially loaded imagery was suitably epic pieces like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and Wagner's "Die Walkure." In the 2004 incarnation, the soundtrack is a seamless mesh of hip-hop, jungle, dub, space rock, ambient sounds and violin performed live by Daniel Bernard Roumain. This time around, the film is not premiering in national theaters, but rather at a star-studded debut at New York's Lincoln Center as a live audio-video event, with the film projecting on three stages.

Take It Back

In the world of re-appropriation, the "n word" has probably had the most truly circuitous journey in post civil-rights America. By the 1950s, "polite" society was distancing itself from the word, and Agatha Christie's best-selling crime novel, "Ten Little Niggers" had to be renamed "Ten Little Indians" for US release. But by the 70s, Gil Scott Heron began the process of defiant reclamation in the novel The Nigger Factory. The mainstream received its shock dosage when Richard Pryor debuted his incendiary standup act, and finally hip-hop culture and gangsta rap codified its modern day usage. The banality of the latest incarnation is revealed when books are published with titles like Capitalist Nigger: The Road to Success.

Although the black community pioneered the revolutionary act of "taking back" hurtful words, many other communities have now followed their example. Besides the use of "Paki" by British South Asian youth, Australian immigrants have started a gleeful website called "WogLife" and for the Jewish community there's the in-your-face magazine "Heeb." The mainstreaming of gay culture came through "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy," "Queer Nation," "Queer Theory" and the slogan that started it all: "We're Here/We're Queer." Gay activists now argue in The Advocate that "queer" is more inclusive than "gay" or "LGBT." Playwright Larry Kramer has now taken it one step further with his new book Faggots.

Meanwhile, over in the feminist battlegrounds, Jo Freeman started the trend with The Bitch Manifesto and Germaine Greer continued with I Am A Whore. But a more formidable taboo was the "c-word," broken again by Greer when she wrote Lady Love Your Cunt (1971). In spite of her efforts, the word remained taboo until movies started using it liberally. By now, it has appeared in diverse media like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Ken Loach's Ladybird Ladybird (1994), Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996), the HBO series Sex & The City and Oz, David Mamet's play Oleanna, and, oddly enough, Ian McEwan's genteel, Booker-winning novel, Atonement ("Naturally, she had never heard the word spoken, or seen it in print, or come across it in asterisks. No one in her presence had ever referred to the word's existence.")

An earlier, academic look at the phenomenon is Randall Kennedy's book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. For the rest of us, there's a new documentary on Trio TV called The N Word (premiered, appropriately or ironically, on July 4). In the course of the Trio documentary, the dissenting view comes from Chuck D of Public Enemy: "Black people didn't invent 'nigger.' It was thrown at us, and us accepting it is like someone just catching garbage and lovin' it." Damon Dash, producer of Jay-Z's Ain't No Nigga, also confesses, "I'm personally conflicted. There is no proper use for the word."

The pro-n faction is represented by Ice Cube, who pioneered the word's entry into hip-hop with his group NWA (Niggaz With Attitude). Cube dismisses the protests by saying, "[this is] some bourgie black man or woman telling us we shouldn't use the word because of its history." Summing up this new jack defiance, Samuel L. Jackson tells the camera, "I'm an actor, I'm a nice guy, but the first thing you need to know about me is I'm a nigger." Finally, Chris Rock explains the ongoing fascination: "This word, it's . . . the only thing white people can't do. That's the only reason . . . anybody writes about it. It's like white people can't believe there's a thing that exists (that) they can't do."

The Pain of Birth

Although the re-appropriation of words has been largely "successful," the film Birth of a Nation presents a different challenge. In 1915, D. W. Griffith was the master of Hollywood. Birth of a Nation, racist as it is, represents the peak of his artistic skills, and single-handedly changed the idiom of cinema. The complex editing and film techniques seen in that film were unheard-of at the time. Griffith's use of elevated shots, cross-cutting, varying camera angles, night photography, iris shots and color tinting were revolutionary and inspired an entire generation of directors.

This spectacular cinematic achievement was marred only by the film's insidiously racist vision of the post-Civil War era. Based on two historical novels, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) and The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden (1902), the film is unabashedly segregationist – with abolitionist whites, and "lazy, rapacious" blacks presented as villains. The author of Clansman, North Carolina preacher Thomas Dixon, was so infuriated by a 1901 staging of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin that he set out to write the book to spread his views: "I believe that Almighty God anointed the white men of the South by their suffering during that time... to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme. "

In Birth of a Nation, scenes of newly elected black legislators carousing drunkenly and leering at white women, white children donning bed-sheets and scaring black children, and the famous scene of Klansmen riding to the rescue, all combine to create suffocating race paranoia. Historians like Thomas Cripps (Slow Fade To Black: The Negro In American Film) and others have pointed out that Birth of a Nation directly inspired a revival of interest and popularity for the KKK.

The NAACP, which had been founded only six years prior, mounted a campaign to stop the film's screenings. But their opponents were well-funded and managed to marshal marketing innovations like advance ticket sales, reserved seating, special trains from Connecticut and New Jersey and huge Times Square billboards of Klan nightriders. Birth of a Nation went on to gross $60 million and was the top grossing Hollywood film until 1940, when it was toppled by another civil-war nostalgia-fest, Gone with the Wind.

Like Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, Griffith's Birth of a Nation deploys advanced techniques and haunting images in support of evil. Even a staunch opponent of the film like Ida Wells of the NAACP grudgingly acknowledged his mastery of craft: "D. W. Griffith was a great artist and one of the leading geniuses in presenting photo plays. That he should prostitute his talents in what would otherwise have [been] the finest picture presented, in an effort to misrepresent a helpless race, has always been a wonder to me." Although Griffith tried to undo the damage with his later film Intolerance, Birth of a Nation remains his permanent and unfortunate legacy to film – a great work marred by deep-seated racism, an appropriate analogy for many parts of American culture even today.

Birth's Rebirth

Ninety years after Griffith's film first appeared, DJ Spooky has tackled the gargantuan task of re-possessing Birth of a Nation. Spooky has always been an artist dealing with blurred boundaries and crossover work. Starting out as a DJ, he has extended to editing Artbyte journal; collaborating with Ryuichi Sakamaoto, Dr. Octagon,Yoko Ono, and Killa Priest (Wu-Tang Clan); exhibiting at the Venice Biennal and Andy Warhol Museum; and scoring the Cannes-award-winning film Slam. His most recent projects have included a remix of Marcel Duchamp for LA Museum of Contemporary Art, a remix of Fela Kuti's Kalakuta Republic for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and a book, Rhythm Science, for MIT Press. Rebirth flows naturally from that long-time interest in smashing sacred (or profane) cows.

As I watched a preview excerpt of Rebirth earlier this month, I was seized by the same queasiness I felt when I watched the original Birth of a Nation. Yes, almost a century has passed since that film's debut. The images of the KKK, at that time so powerful, now seem comical. They no longer frighten, and are unlikely to lead to a rebirth of that group. But can these images ever be revived and deconstructed without glamorizing them in the process? Ultimately, only the audiences' reactions can give us an answer.

When I asked Spooky about this, his response was characteristically blunt: "Do white musicians have to think about this when they play? I find the basic thrust of the argument of who the audience "is" to be completely beside the point. Of course, Birth of a Nation's crazy racist images of white people in black-face added to the mix makes for a truly 21st-century experience. There are a lot of modern-day analogs – Strom Thurmond's daughter just applied to join the Daughters of the Confederacy, and Bush's (s)election of 2000 could have easily been a scene in the movie. So yeah, the film is really current, and basically I'm holding the remix of the film up to America in a way that says 'another world is possible... how do you make it real?' "

The challenge for Spooky will be when the piece leaves New York's rarefied quarters and travels elsewhere. In the days of "mash-up" and Danger Mouse's re-appropriation of The Beatles White Album, it's only a matter of time before Rebirth of a Nation is in the hands of Internet mix-up artists. When segments of this performance start re-appearing in other incarnations, will every such attempt be a politically-correct "re-apropriation"? In the Trio documentary The N Word, we see unnerving visuals of "nigger" being repeated ad nauseum and without context on a Japanese TV show. Will Spooky be savvy enough to prevent similar, context-devoid readings of Rebirth of a Nation?
Naeem Mohaiemen is director of the documentary Muslims Or Heretics? and Editor of Shobak.Org
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