A prolific artist and writer, Paul D. Miller is still best known under his “constructed persona” as the experimental trip-hop musician DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. Miller’s latest multimedia project could begin classifying him as a film director, sort of, as his “Rebirth of a Nation” is a feature-length remix of D. W. Griffith’s seminal yet blatantly racist 1915 Civil War epic “Birth of a Nation.” Applying a similar methodology to what he does as a sampling, manipulating DJ, Miller’s deconstruction of the original film has been hyper-colorized, with digital effects added, its previously silent soundtrack reinvented musically (aided by the Kronos Quartet) and politically (via Miller’s eloquent commentary running throughout). I spoke with DJ Spooky himself earlier this month to mix it up about the (former) white man’s world, who owns memory and why he wants to collaborate artistically with Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and Dubya himself.
Can you remember back to your first viewing of “Birth of a Nation,” and your initial reaction?
I saw it back in college. It was hard to take seriously: “What the hell is going on with this?” It’s usually taught [to be] looked at as a historical document. I went to a small school in Maine, Bowdoin College. We were in the middle of nowhere, so we had a lot of free time on our hands. I got a chance to do quite a bit of reading and watching crazy, quirky films. When I saw it in the ancient early ’90s, as a young plebe at Bowdoin, it was surreal. Here is this heavyweight film, but what’s all the controversy about? It seemed like a comedy show.
You’ve said that “Birth of a Nation” set the tone for the country. Is cinema so powerful that it could keep up a momentum of prejudice for several decades?
Absolutely. It’s funny, right now, [with the] Sonia Sotomayor nomination, the Republican right is frothing at the mouth. They’re saying she’s like the KKK without the hoods. It’s wildly hypocritical, saying she’s racist. [laughs] It doesn’t stop with the Republicans, they’re like characters straight out of “Birth of a Nation.” That was the first film to really show how deeply flawed elections are. It’s also the first film to show a black person getting elected to the highest office of the land, so the resonance with contemporary culture is very direct. I’m looking at Obama versus these Gingrich-types as an update of the similar narrative.
You can’t say “Birth of a Nation” set the tone without looking at what the actual tone was. [There was] the restructuring of American culture after the Civil War, and a century-plus of deep racial unease in the American psyche. If you look at the beginnings of American pop culture, it’s the minstrel show, whites in blackface caricatures, saying nonsensical stuff, but immensely popular. Whether it’s the Beastie Boys or the Rolling Stones, it’s still a similar narrative, just updated and remixed. I’m not saying these guys are KKK, but the idea is their appropriation of racial politics through this prism of entertainment and mass media.
Minorities are expected to be the U.S. majority by 2050, and Obama’s our chief executive. Is it still a white man’s world?
What is “white”? I think we need preservation. “Whiteness studies” is quite intriguing right now. [laughs] If you’re an American growing up, you’re going to be bombarded by hyper-multi-cultures: your family going to a Japanese restaurant, your mother doing yoga. The bigoted Archie Bunker stereotype, that’s pretty remote to most people, but the power and economic dynamics of whiteness are clearly defined. It’s the self-entitlement that Bush… he doesn’t represent all of white America, but [those] easily subdued by these breathtakingly incompetent idiots. Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton. Bush graduated with a D-minus average. [laughs] But he was on cruise control. Nobody questioned his intellect, in the Republican camp at least. Maybe whiteness right now is about strange insecurities popping up, or neuroses about becoming a minority? Whites, on the planet, are a minority — the majority of the human species is Asian, then black and Latino.
I like your idea of the director as DJ, but with this project, I even see you as an essayist. I’d be curious to hear you expound on that idea, and what it means for future projects.
Most of my work is about this idea of looking at texts. I’m very interested in how we tell stories in the 21st century. Don’t forget, 2004 was the last major election cycle before YouTube. I really think that YouTube, if it had been around, would’ve changed the dynamic of how the Republicans [circulated] disinformation.
DJ culture is an amazing way of getting information out. It’s telling an underground narrative, something that says “You are the media generator.” You’re not receiving mass media, you’re producing it. That’s turned the whole media landscape on its head. You’re going to be seeing a lot more people pulling bits and pieces from the media, and making compelling statements from collage. It’s this blender of all the data around us.