In some dark corners, The Birth of a Nation might be received as enthusiastically today as it was when it debuted in 1915. The silent dramatization of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction was the first American motion picture to be screened at the White House, with President Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet in attendance. While violent racism is not tolerated so openly as it was during Wilson’s day, vintage white nationalism is making a comeback in the Trump era.
Richard Spencer, the most prominent white supremacist in America, led a group of torch-bearing demonstrators last week to protest the removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia. During the last month, neo-Confederate alt-right rallies have popped up in Lexington, New Orleans, and other cities, like the opening scenes of a dark reboot of D.W. Griffith’s pioneering piece of propaganda. The Birth of a Nation is as relevant now as it has been at any point over the last century.
That’s why, on Tuesday, the artist and musician DJ Spooky is performing his own version of The Birth of a Nation at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Rebirth of a Nation, his multimedia reimagining of the silent film, includes an ambitious soundtrack performed live, much as the original 1915 screenings sometimes did. It’s a piece that he’s staged on occasion since 2004. Now, with the renewed prominence of virulent white supremacy, the themes resonate more strongly than they did just a summer ago, when he staged the piece at Chicago’s Millennium Park.