“I Shut Off My Pen Light For This?!?”: Afterbirth of a Nation

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid and Guest Contributor Fiqah

Fiqah:All right, full disclosure. I loathe Birth of a Nation. L-O-A-T-H-E, my friends. In my short time on this planet, I have been forced to endure two (!) viewings of the flick–twice the Recommended Lifetime Limit for Black people. The last time I watched this film in its entirety was in college for a film class. Attending the screening was mandatory: you could not pass this class unless you watched it. Please believe me when I tell you that if my professor had not essentially dangled that tasty degree carrot in front of me, I would never have watched this movie again. I got through it by taking extremely-detailed notes: not my usual style (I am a scrawly doodler) but I wanted to make sure that I would never, ever have to refer back to anything in that movie that would require me to watch it again for as long as I lived. After it was done, I wrote a paper contrasting the placement of female archetypes in the film, collected my “A”, and put all the unpleasantness behind me.

So when Latoya posted about Rebirth of a Nation, I was quite intrigued and more than a little excited. “A remix of that piece of racist cinematic self-flagellation?” thought I. “What a concept! I am SO down! Put me in the game, coach!“ I skipped my happy ass on down to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where I met up with the always fabulous Mizz AJ Plaid. As the theater filled (Fridays at MoMA are free, so it was packed), AJ and I chatted about what we hoped the film would showcase. What was a remix in relation to a film, anyway? How would DJ Spooky’s take be viewed in a post-Obama context? Why the hell don’t the people behind us just sit closer together instead of carrying on a fifteen-minute shouting conversation across a row of empty seats? Answers to all these questions were delivered swiftly.

Andrea:  DJ Spooky’s conceit: a director is a type of DJ, remixing reality. In D.W. Griffiths’ case, he remixed the ugly, lethal reality of the Ku Klux Klan into a hero’s narrative, that of the white-supremacist group saving The White Race from the emancipated Blacks and biracial folks. Furthermore, we’re still seeing the rippling damage from that piece of work to this day, not only in film but in various interactions between Blacks and Whites.

The master mixer does damage to his project by overstating the obvious. And what I mean by overstate is: moving geometric shapes framing certain characters and gestures; red-tinting war and rioting scenes; the trip-hop soundtrack. That ^%&%$ trip-hop soundtrack.

Spooky should have lost the trip-hop and the triangles and remixed Birth… with current examples of the images it spawned, e.g. the scene in which a white woman leaps off a cliff to avoid the sexual advances of a Black(faced) man and its direct descendent in 1992’s Last of the Mohicans. And splice that with news footage of how the Black rapist still plays in the popular imagination (most famously Bush the Elder’s use of Willie Horton). After all, the original was a 3-hour epic…mess.

Such length offers such a perfect opportunity.

Fiqah:  From my notes–”About 15 minutes in, I realize with mounting horror that this supposed remix is actually a play-by-play retelling of the original with little innovation. This is Birth of a Nation.”

Some other observations:

  • My stomach starts to ache as I realize that the man sitting directly behind me is laughing at all the slave caricatures on view for “comic” relief. He’s particularly happy about a shucking-and-jiving scene in the slave quarters. I take a TUMS.
  • From my notes: “Okay, Spooky, all your ass has to say about the slave workday is that it was a 7 to 7 with a two hour break? Really, Spooky? Did we forget that these were UNPAID hours? SIDE-EYE!”
  • From my notes: “Lydia. Oh shit. He left in Lydia. And with a dry-ass voice over about slave rape. Like it’s just some footnote instead of being so prevalent that it changed the way we all look. This is some bullshit.”
  • From my notes: “Remix my ass. This is like what happens when you unclog a backed-up toilet and it belches.”
  • From my notes: “Ya know, I’m starting to think that there aren’t a lotta anti-racists in this crowd.”
  • Someone actually fetches the usher and makes AJ shut off her pen! I’m so irritated. Tattling! I take another TUMS.
  • From my notes: “Okay. People. You are watching a propaganda film. For the Klan. Stop oohing and aahhing.”
  • From my notes: “Oh, a Confederate soldier got bayoneted. Cry me a river.”
  • From my notes: “DAMMIT, Spooky! Speak up!”
  • From my notes: “Okay, Black people in charge are NOT interested in ‘getback’. So funny how that racist projection persists even today, especially with Black POTUS.”
  • From my notes: “Are these people laughing at Mammy?! SIDE-EYE!!!!”

I have to admit that at this point, I put my pen away. I know, y’all – I dropped the ball. But the point was, I didn’t HAVE to take notes. I wasn’t watching a retelling, repositioning, or re-anything. I was essentially watching some Cliffs Notes, trip-hoppy nonsense that may have been more aptly titled Afterbirth of a Nation.: Same Shit, Different Decade. And maybe I‘ve been in the anti-racist echo chamber for too long, but I really did not expect the audience‘s reaction.

Andrea:  About that audience…and the turning off of my pen light. Fooligans.
 

Fiqah:  OKAY? Outrageous. And I knew when that [woman] got up that she was gonna “tattle.”

Andrea:  Gurl, so missed the rising of that woman. But again, it was cool that the audience was drinking and eating and laughing at Mammy and the dancing Negroes.  But my pen light was a problem.
 

Fiqah:  AAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! The tying and whipping of Black folks onscreen passed without comment. But your pen was a problem. Anyway, when you said to that [woman] behind us when she asked would the pen always be on, “Yea,” I was TOO happy.

Andrea:  But back to the audience–serious disconnect with what Spooky was tryna get at–film manipulates reality–and the audience’s reaction to seeing Mammy (laughter), the whipping, (nada), and my pen (tattling). It’s as if the (mostly) white audience proved his point..

Fiqah:  But yeah, it was like watching the White audience react was part of the art experience. Because when we all sat down, I didn’t see fellow film attendees as a potential lynch mob. But after all that, when those lights went up…Oh, wow.

Fiqah:  Let’s say not active participants. But if something obviously racist and unjust was happening these people would let it. They would not speak up or out. Collusion is…I dunno.

Andrea:  But they were active–active in participating in the laughter at racist imagery. Or acting out in a racist manner, like Miss Tattle-tale.

Fiqah:  My soul felt flattened by the end, ironed out by the undeniable presence of post-Obama entrenched racism.

Andrea:  Like my pen light was that big of a distraction to the film experience.

Fiqah:  Seriously. If you were White she woulda let it be–I truly feel that. Plus people next to me were texting through whole film, with LCD devices, and no one said a word.

Andrea:  Of course, because her brain would have said, “Oh, journalist or film student taking notes. Not defiant Negress giving her attitude. But her mind didn’t say, “Negress who is a journalist or film student taking notes.”

Fiqah:  I was annoyed that you were called out.  Seriously, next time, we are playing dumb.

Andrea:  No, next time, I should tell whoever that I’m a film critic taking notes.

Fiqah:  Yes.

I mean, they swallowed all of it: the racist caricaturing (seriously, EVERY slave-era caricature was on display in Birth of a Nation: the genteel Southern family wrenched from their lives of comfort by this pesky, divisive war; the erosion of White privilege – and therefore, the breakdown of the social order, ‘cause you know Black folks can’t be trusted to govern ourselves., and the necessary violent reinstitution of White order via the Klan).

SIGH.

On the upside, whenever the audience would laugh at something blatantly racist, Andrea would exclaim “What the HELL?!“ and/or huff loudly and collapse in her chair, which made me chuckle. Seriously, in a difficult situation, you want to have an AJ with you…

Still, by the time the film ended (longest two hours of my life) I had developed what I was sure were permanent cases of roaring agita, twist-mouth, and side-eye.

Andrea and Fiqah: Sorry, Spooky–your remix is just a little bit too much like history on repeat.

Latoya’s Note

I also received this review from reader Qispoon:

Creating a trip hop soundtrack to the flick, turning the screen red when the Klan shows up and superimposing thin white animated lines to highlight and isolate certain images onscreen like the stitching on a hipster T-shirt do not a remix make.

The kid gloves that critics seem to wear when dealing with this project says much more interesting and troubling things about where the intellectual/arty class is with Art and Race in this country than That Subliminal Kid’s freshman undergraduate treatment of the material. Because the one thing DJ Spooky is very good at is promoting his brand. People want him – or someone just like him – to exist so badly because he’s the got all the trappings of the person-of-color artist of the moment.

Granted, DJ Spooky’s genius is that he also tapped into our desire to see “Birth of a Nation” not just torn down and put in its place, but remade for our times. He just didn’t have the chops to pull it off. Where he fell short of showing, he tried to make up for in telling. But he knows telling is lame so he has someone else – the PBs narrator — do it for him.
I went to see the screening because over the years a number of (Black) writers and artists I know have offered similar critiques of DJ Spooky’s rise to fame. It may be easy to write this off as professional envy – but frankly every ethnic group, Asian, Latino, etc., has their own version of the DJ Spooky Effect – an artist who is very good at gaming the system and is rewarded for it.

Easily the strangest aspect of “Rebirth” is the didactic, PBS-style scaffolding around and within the piece in which the voice-over narrator explains to us the clever thing Spooky is doing as a DJ to disrupt the propaganda of the original film. Indeed, he keeps reminding us what a genius Spooky instead of letting the piece speak for itself. But that’s the problem – the narrator has to do this heavy lifting because otherwise the piece itself would collapse in a milk toast heap. My friend and I joked how great it would be if we had such a narrator following us around letting folks know how amazing we were.

Ultimately, you can’t grudge the Kid for his success – he’s just hustling like anyone else. But you can take the apparatus that props him up to task. “Rebirth of a Nation” proves not only does the emperor have no clothes, he practically begs to be dethroned. Will someone please remix the remix?

Image Credit: Rebirth of a Nation Ad/Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA)