Two years ago at an auditorium in Charleston, S.C., DJ Spooky screened “Rebirth of a Nation,” his musical remixing of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film that’s notoriously sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. After the show, DJ Spooky, also known as Paul D. Miller, was approached by members of the Daughters of the Confederacy, who believed he had insulted Confederate white history.
“Instead of getting mad or yelling, we ended up having a candid discussion about race,” DJ Spooky recalls by phone from a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. “My motto is, ‘Anything can be remixed,’ and in this case I’m remixing a deeply troubling and vicious film.”
A historical epic that courted controversy during the early years of cinema, “Birth of a Nation” is three hours long and padded with crude stereotypes of African Americans and white actors wearing blackface. The film — the most expensive Hollywood had produced at the time — also pioneered a handful of filmmaking techniques, including montages, flashbacks, close-ups and dissolves, which DJ Spooky says is what drew him to the project.
While the movie screens this Sunday, March 19, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, the experimental musician will appear onstage, chopping and editing the film’s Beethoven- and Wagner-inspired soundtrack. “Rebirth of a Nation,” DJ Spooky says, will feature 19 tracks loaded with synthesizers, hip-hop beats and layers of dissonance using iPad software he created for the tour.
“The idea is to apply hip-hop sampling, looping and layering techniques to the soundtrack,” DJ Spooky says. “I do this at every ‘Rebirth’ event. I’m not going to remix it to show black people singing, ‘Kumbaya’ at the end of the film. But film soundtracks are important to me, and in modern cinema African-Americans have had a very ambiguous and tense relationship.”
A turntablist who began tinkering with dub, reggae and trip-hop music in the mid-1990s, DJ Spooky, 46, says he’s been touring “Rebirth of a Nation” for 13 years. New York’s Lincoln Center Festival and other organizations commissioned the project in 2004. In 2015, after 50 tour stops around the country, he released an album version of the soundtrack with San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet.
In February, his remix appeared in the PBS documentary “Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster,” a Danny Glover-narrated look into how Griffith’s film provoked a clash over human rights, freedom of speech and the power of Hollywood. The controversy over “Birth of a Nation” helped expand the NAACP movement, which tried, but failed, to ban the film before its release, DJ Spooky says.
“If there’s one thing that’s kept this project going, it’s that movies and racial politics are still deeply rooted in each other,” says DJ Spooky, who cites the #OscarsSoWhite controversy as one example of the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
The “Rebirth of a Nation” remix isn’t designed to satirize or correct such issues in Hollywood, he says.
“The whole project is to get people to accept that, in DJ culture, there’s no one right or wrong way to remix music in movies,” DJ Spooky says. “Even deeply racist ones.”
“DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation” will take place 7 p.m. Sunday, March 19, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Tickets cost $25. Call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org.
DJ Spooky will also appear at the Arsht Center to debut “23: Deconstructing Mozart,” a soundtrack that will accompany the Koresh Dance Company’s performance at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17, and Saturday, March 18. Tickets cost $50.
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