Ken Jordan on Thu, 22 Jul 2004 08:12:00 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Rebirth of a Word, a Film, a Slur

Here is a review from Alternet of Nettime contributor Paul D. Miller's
Rebirth of a Nation, which he is performing at Lincoln Center July 23 and

Rebirth of a Word, a Film, a Slur

By Naeem Mohaiemen, AlterNet.

"It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is
all so terribly true." AD 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 AD AD - this and n AD AD - 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

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 AD 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 AD 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 AD 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?

Ken Jordan

"Be as if." - Andrew Boyd

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: