Paul D. Miller, Rebirth of a Nation, 2008, stills from a color film, 100 minutes.

SINCE ITS RELEASE IN 1915, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation has met with outrage, protest, and riot. As a gallant creation myth, the Civil War epic swiftly revived a defunct Ku Klux Klan—a recruitment film for generations of hatemongering. Griffith’s blithering mammies, jittering slaves, and impudent freedmen promoted an image of black depravity that continues to haunt America. Nearly a century later, Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) tackles the revisionist narrative as historical object and living mantra. Applying “turntablist” techniques to cinema, Miller’s ambitious Rebirth of a Nation (2008) extends beyond the original’s racial implications to highlight how Griffith’s film defined the parameters of propaganda in moving images.

In silent film, music provides the most salient emotional framework. Enlisting composer Joseph Carl Breil, Griffith created a magniloquent score for The Birth of a Nation that, in part, manipulated popular standards. By 1915, songs such as “I Wish I Was in Dixie” and “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” were inextricably linked to white American selfhood, facilitating viewers’ identification with Griffith’s heroes and ideals. For his Rebirth, Miller eschews the familiar and communicates largely through absence. His replacement sound track, an electronic drone peppered with bluesy harmonica, rolling cymbals, moaning violin, and plodding drum, alludes to the African-American cultural contribution previously ignored, but more important, the underlying threat in Griffith’s imagery—the crowd as wrathful bees or brewing storm.

True to DJ form, Rebirth of a Nation was commissioned as a live performance for the Lincoln Center Festival in 2004. From behind laptop computers, Miller mixed audio and video on three screens, overlaying his heavily edited, though still chronological, footage with computer animations and contemporary video clips. Without the thrill of improvisation and multimedia barrage, however, the subsequent single-channel theatrical release, which screens this week at MoMA, feels lukewarm; the new sound track, its most notable remaining intervention.

In this version, an external narrator draws parallels to the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, finally asking the obvious question: Could the film’s story and our history have ended differently? Miller does not go far enough in suggesting these alternate possibilities; his appropriation remains too close to the object of his critique to be truly effective, leaving the nagging sense that there was more that could have been done. Maybe the onus of change can only rest on the viewers.

Paul D. Miller’s Rebirth of a Nation plays June 22–28; D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation plays June 25 and 27; both at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For more details, click here.

Cameron Shaw