This has got to be a first: A grand cinematic celebration of the creation of the Ku Klux Klan, presented in the very bosom of Southern liberalism, UNC's newly reopened Memorial Hall, and backed, no less, by a hip-hop soundtrack.
Improbable as it may sound, that's the order of the day this Friday in Chapel Hill, when North Carolina gets its first (and perhaps, only) look at Rebirth of a Nation, a "remix" of D.W. Griffith's Klan-celebrating 1915 epic Birth of a Nation, generally considered cinema's first masterpiece, the movie that launched the entire apparatus known as the feature film. Rebirth is the brainchild of DJ Spooky, aka That Subliminal Kid, aka Paul D. Miller, noted African-American musician, writer and intellectual, who, in Chapel Hill as elsewhere, will perform a hip-hop soundtrack to a cut and visually reconfigured version of Birth, live on stage.
In case it's not obvious, DJ Spooky's project is neither entertainment nor politics in the usual sense. Rather, it's of-the-moment conceptual art, an unusually purposeful bit of postmodern eclecticism. I first saw Rebirth, which has toured all over the world, last year at New York's Lincoln Center, and found it fascinating on almost too many levels to count. Its arrival in North Carolina, though, adds additional layers of fascination, ones that touch on local history, legend and--gulp--my own background.
Griffith's movie centers on the Camerons, a Southern family who endure the Civil War and one of whose sons, Ben, forms the Ku Klux Klan at the onset of Reconstruction. I'm descended from a local family named the Camerons, who were among North Carolina's largest land and slave owners prior to the War. (Irony of irony, their name adorns Chapel Hill's Cameron Avenue, on which Rebirth will be performed this week.) Is there a connection between the movie Camerons and the real ones? Could Griffith's eternally controversial film have living roots in the Triangle?
The reasons such questions matter have a lot to do with the contested legacy of Birth of a Nation. As a film critic and a Southerner, I've spent my professional life both wholly entranced and deeply perplexed by this film. Without question, it is the cornerstone of all subsequent moviemaking. Beginning in 1908, when he went to work for New York's Biograph studio, Griffith developed the entire language of the fictional film, including techniques such as close-ups, medium shots, parallel cutting, dream sequences, time shifts and countless others. In Birth, which became perhaps the most successful movie of all time, he combined these innovations with astonishing coherence and power, creating a sweeping, three-hour historical drama so fluid and emotionally urgent that, 90 years on, it can still hold an audience riveted.
The downside, of course, is that by contemporary standards Birth is appallingly racist. It doesn't defame the entire black race, but it comes close. The good blacks are the "Faithful Souls" who remain true to their old masters after the War. Most of the rest, though, are dupes of greedy carpetbaggers and perfidious radical Republicans (like Sen. Stoneman, the movie's caricature of Thaddeus Stevens), and they run wild in Birth, overturning civil order and justifying the creation of the terroristic Klan.
What to do with such a tainted masterpiece? Hollywood--a town and an industry that Griffith virtually created--has given the craven answers: denial and suppression. In 1999, the Directors Guild of America stripped Griffith's name from its most prestigious award, citing Birth's racism as the reason (which is about like removing Shakespeare from the canon because of Shylock and Othello). In 2004, around the time Rebirth was drawing packed houses in New York, L.A.'s Silent Movie Theater bowed to political pressure groups and again canceled a showing of Birth.
DJ Spooky, it seems to me, offers a much better answer than such politically correct censorship. Rebirth keeps Birth in the cultural mix in a way that's provocative, timely and illuminating. By surrounding Griffith's creation with hip-hop beats, it not only claims Birth for African-American culture, but reclaims it for 21st century American culture.
In cutting the film's three hours by roughly half, and embellishing its images with various graffiti-like superimpositions, Rebirth neither ridicules the original nor reduces it to kitsch. On the contrary, the power and beauty of Griffith's groundbreaking spectacle shine though--as do its moral obtuseness and polemical snarl. DJ Spooky's recontextualization reminds us that we can't see Birth except through the scrim provided by our own postmodern, 21st-century vantage point. Yet, not unlike the racial repercussions of the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster, it also stresses that the historical forces we find so discomfiting in Griffith's film are not only an inescapable part of our past, but are with us still.
As for the local dimensions of that history, my cousins the Camerons owned the Farintosh and Stagville plantations (the latter now a state historical site north of Durham) as well as a Raleigh mansion, long since demolished, on Hillsborough Street across from St. Mary's College. The 1967 book North Carolina's Capital, Raleigh, by Elizabeth Culbertson Waugh, reports that it "is a well-founded tradition that the house was the author's backdrop for The Clansman, a book by North Carolina's Thomas Dixon on which the silent film, Birth of a Nation, was based."
Thomas Dixon Jr. was surely one of the most extraordinary characters late 19th-century North Carolina produced. Born in Shelby, at around age 20 he got elected to the N.C. legislature, where he helped found the school that would become N.C. State University. Giving up politics, he attended Wake Forest College's seminary, got ordained and soon landed at a church on New York's 23rd Street, where he became a superstar preacher a la Billy Graham. Feeling constrained by the collar, he quit the ministry and launched himself as a fiery right-wing speaker--a pre-radio Rush Limbaugh--who packed halls across the United States.
Switching careers yet again, Dixon penned a stream of polemical novels like The Clansman, which was a smash in both book and stage versions. When Griffith remade it as a film, it was Dixon who suggested changing the title to The Birth of a Nation. Once it became a gargantuan hit, he morphed into a moviemaker (producer, writer, director), cranking out more than a dozen features that apparently all are now lost.
Though he made several fortunes, Dixon lost it all in an ill-fated real estate venture in the Grandfather Mountain area. He spent the last years of his life working as a clerk of court in downtown Raleigh. My cousin Anne Preston Bridges of Raleigh--who wrote the Broadway hit Coquette, which won Mary Pickford her only Oscar when it was remade as a film--long ago recalled to me seeing "old Mr. Dixon" ambling home to his boarding house on Hillsborough Street, near where the YMCA now stands.
A 2004 biography of Dixon is titled American Racist, and he clearly was the source of Birth's racist ideology, while Griffith supplied the incandescent cinematic setting. Yet Dixon's ideas were also unexceptional enough that they passed muster with most white Americans at the time. Later, both Dixon and Griffith apparently rued that their paean to the "aristocratic" Klan of the 1870s helped launch the redneck Klan of the 20th century, an irony matched by another: The movie also helped establish the NAACP, which gained a national profile in protesting the 1915 release.
I have just begun trying to find out if the movie Camerons were based on my Cameron cousins. Suffice it to say since Dixon lived in post-Civil War Raleigh twice as a young man (once as a tyro legislator and again as a neophyte preacher), it's more likely than not that he knew the Camerons, the most socially prominent family in a very small capital city. Perhaps he memorialized a distant friendship by borrowing their names--if not their stories--for the novel that would become the most influential film in history. I also have the feeling that the movie's mythical "Piedmont, South Carolina," contains more of Raleigh than any other real place.
Thus, when Rebirth of a Nation visits the Triangle this week, it will not only be venturing into the heart of the old Confederacy. It may also, in a strange way, be coming home.