The idea. Arthur D. Danto says that – “A work of art is an externalization of the artist’s consciousness; as if we could see his way of seeing and not merely what he saw. Whatever else art does it has to feed into an ongoing discourse on the nature of art, or we will judge it trivial.” To experience DJ Spooky’s “way of seeing” we must first understand the artist as spectator, one who stands amidst the world of knowledge, personal experiences, and the influential arts. Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) makes his spectatorship legible in Rebirth of a Nation by bringing seemingly disparate works into conversation.
The backstory. The Birth of A Nation (1915) is a critical example of a film that connects cinematic art to the dissemination of cultural values. The film projected not only artistic innovation but also racial and political beliefs. This cultural artifact from celebrated innovative filmmaker D.W. Griffith, disseminated myths and truths of American life at the time. It also chronicled the casualties of our racial structure that unfortunately remain so central to the nation’s narrative. Robert Sklar informed us that – “movies were the most popular and influential medium of culture in the United States” (Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Vintage, 1994), 3.) More importantly, he noted that these privileged and talented filmmakers not only perpetuated the culture, but in fact had “the power to create the nation’s myths and dreams.”
Thus, movies were a most effective means of disseminating widely held core values, racist stereotypes and socially accepted un-truths. African American stereotypes, according to Donald Bogle, were emblazoned on the American psyche via Griffith’s epic. Although African American filmmakers were making simultaneous images that countered these offensive stereotypes, Oscar Micheaux in particular, who made films from 1919 to 1948, these works were not part of the American mainstream. African American films were not in conversation with The Birth of A Nation because at the time, audiences were segregated and therefore such works had little effect on the general population.
The legacy. With agreement about what the past has left us in both cinematic and cultural terms we can now examine how some artists integrate these legacies into their own work. Even though we now consider Black artists part of the mainstream, it was only in 1969 that a Hollywood studio funded the first African American film – Gordon Parks, Sr.’s The Learning Tree 1969 (Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988) 438) According to Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled 2000, made some thirty years later, little had changed over the past century. I would re-contextualize some of the issues in Bamboozled and argue that a lot has changed, in particular, the participants in the conversation. With the possibilities envisioned by “woke” artists, we have unique opportunities to revisit and re-engage with the ever present legacy of our past.
The conversation. While for each of us the artistic and cultural indicators of the times are different the quest remains the same – to make sense of history and its influence on present. We can look to historians, reporters, preachers or teachers for guidance. More and more of us are looking to artists who we feel have taken on the role of modern-day philosophers. Here, with Rebirth of a Nation, we have an opportunity that will most certainly “feed into an ongoing discourse on the nature of art” – and trust me, it is not trivial.
Sheril Antonio, Ph.D., is the Senior Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and an Associate Arts Professor in the department of Art and Public Policy. She is the author of “Contemporary African American Cinema.”