The Klu Klux Klan hold a parade in Richmond
(Photo from the Historic Richmond site).
Coincidence? The same year (1915) that D.W. Griffith released his audacious cinematic epic, Birth of a Nation, a reconstituted Klu Klux Klan was founded and began to thrive. The organization eventually gained up to three million members in the years to follow — and why not? It had arguably the greatest, biggest, film of its day serving as an ace recruitment tool.
The top movie director of his day, Griffith’s father had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His film was originally called “The Clansman,” and it was not only the first motion picture to be shown in the White House (to Woodrow Wilson), it was also the first to break the 100 minute mark and ushered in the age of Hollywood excess — budgeted at $40,000, it eventually cost three times that.
In Griffith’s admittedly exciting and cinematically-involving movie, the original members of the KKK that formed in the days following Reconstruction come off as swashbuckling protectors of Southern American virtues, like an army of heroic Indiana Jones’ in white sheets. Its depiction of African-Americans is an abomination — the zombies in Night of the Living Dead are afforded more humanity. Let’s leave it at that.
Noted Southern folklorist Stetson Kennedy reports on how the Richmond chapter of the Klu Klux Klan operated when the organization reformed in the early 20th century:
A typical bit of Ku Kluxery came when Mrs. J. W. Sweat, a Negro schoolteacher who had moved into a white neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, received a letter containing a bullet and a note from the K.K.K. reading: You are not smart.
The exemplary DJ and conceptual landscape artist Paul D. Miller — alias DJ Spooky — will perform his new multi-media recasting of D.W. Griffith’s still-polarizing paean to the Klan, and to the “Old South,” at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center on Wednesday. We can call this a Genuine Event, folks: A radical and wickedly entertaining de-construction of Griffith’s racist tract held in the former Capitol of the Confederacy.
The performance begins at 7:30 at UR’s Alice Jepson Theatre, and the DJ will have a “talk back” session after the screening. As Miller explains at his website:
Griffith’s film has been a historical object of fascination for me for a long while - it’s been one of the defining images of America in the 20th century. As we enter the 21st Century it sometimes helps to know like the philosopher Santayana said so long ago, that “those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it.”
“Birth of a Nation” focuses on how America needed to create a fiction of African American culture in tune with the fabrication of “whiteness” that undergirded American thought throughout most of the last several centuries: it floats out in the world of cinema as an enduring albeit totally racist - epic tale of an America that, in essence, never existed. The Ku Klux Klan still uses this film as a recruiting device and it’s considered to be an American “cinema classic” despite the racist content.
By remixing the film along the lines of dj culture, I hoped to create a counter-narrative, one where the story implodes on itself, one where new stories arise out the ashes of that explosion.