DJ Spooky Looks Deeper Into the Films of Cinema Pioneer Oscar Micheaux

DJ Spooky will be speaking and performing at the Aaron Swartz Day International Hackathon Evening Event, November 10, 2018, at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. TICKETS

The Sixth Annual Aaron Swartz Day and International Hackathon is going on all over the world, November 10-11, 2018.

DJ Spooky at SF MOMA, July 12, 2018.

 

 

In this weird Trump Dystopian Bizarre Feverish Lunatic Dream of White Supremacy that we’re kind of trying to deprogram out of, these kinds of films, and these kinds of gatherings, are where people from different perspectives, races, classes, come together and think: “How does cinema change our vision of things?”

 

Don’t forget, most people in the Trump administration were involved with film. Whether it be Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin or the Mootch guy (Anthony Scaramucci).

 

Steve Bannon was also a producer, and of course Trump comes out of reality TV. So, we can easily see how they try to apply cinematic narrative to this nightmarish shitstorm of an administration. And you can see we can use film to deprogram and decolonize people’s perspective.”

 

– DJ Spooky, during his introduction for “Body and Soul,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 12, 2018.

By Lisa Rein

I went to see Body and Soul at MOMA last July, as I was excited about DJ Spooky’s new score for this silent 1925 Paul Robeson movie directed by Oscar Micheaux. It is said to be Robeson’s first film.

Watching it was quite an experience. I have never had such a riveting time watching a silent film before. Not only was the acting was incredible, but DJ Spooky’s soundtrack was moving and suspenseful.

Even though “Body and Soul” was released in 1925, the subject matter is as timely as ever. 

Here’s a video clip.

 

This film is just one of many on the The Pioneers of African-American Cinema DVD box set. These landmarks of early African-American film have been remastered in HD from archive elements and digitally restored, and are available as a box set or for streaming on Netflix.

Here’s a complete listing of the films included in the collection

 

DJ Spooky spoke to the audience a bit before the MOMA showing. Below is a complete transcription.

 

Begin Transcription:

“Thanks to MOMA for putting together such a wonderful and hyper eclectic group of films.

It’s a roster that really goes all over the spectrum of African-American cinema, showing the last century as it sort of evolves into the 21st.

First, a little background. After reconstruction in the south, there was a tremendous amount of effort, systematically, to disenfranchise African-Americans. So, one of the more intriguing situations that ended up happening is that there was a huge migration. As a matter of fact, I’m working on another project, with Henry Louis Gates, of Harvard, based on this idea of the genetics of Reconstruction. I’m scoring that this summer, it’s called “Reconstruction.” It will be out soon.

I’m very intrigued with these issues, mainly because I remixed the film “Birth of a Nation.” If anyone hasn’t see that, it’s on Netflix.

The fun part about “Birth of a Nation” – it’s a very twisted, very eerie film – but it set the tone for American Cinema for most of the 20th Century. Essentially, D.W. Griffith, who is considered the father of American Cinema, made a parable film, which kind of set the stage for films like “Gone With The Wind,” and other, kind of even more current stuff like 12 Years A Slave, one could argue. Or even the Birth of a Nation film that just came out a couple years ago.

So, what happens in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, mainly it’s all white people in black face. There are very few people of color, and it shows what happens in the first major state-wide election of an African-American, mixed race, takes power. And then white people start going crazy, and then they become the KKK… Oh wait! That’s Trump! So ya know, it’s like driving while black at this point.

The fun part that you have to imagine is that cinema can really dig into some of these structural issues of our time. It’s a mirror that we hold up to society.

So, Oscar Micheaux was infuriated by Birth of a Nation, and so was the NAACP. What ended up happening is that they protested it, and created a whole dynamic where they would have almost riots and controversy. They actually invented the term “blockbuster” – because people would line up around the block to see the film.

There’s a lot of legacy in Oscar Micheaux because he ended up responding against Birth of a Nation by making his own film. His most famous film is In Our Gates.

Tonight, we’re going to see Paul Robeson as a kind of a Dostoevskian character. Dostoevsky created this sort of existential novel called “The Double.” It’s one of my favorite novellas, where the character has a dual personality. You kind of see two versions of the same person.

So what ended up happening with this film is that he plays multiple characters who have relationships around a black preacher. The black preacher was the center of the community on a lot levels, and there is a lot of tricksterism going on.

I don’t want to give everything away, but hopefully you will approach this with a sense of humor. He plays a drunkard, a card shark, he’s a guy who understands the after hours club scene – but a.k.a. the 1920’s club scene. Just imagine that we fast forward to 2018 and we realize “why haven’t we seen more black women directors? Why haven’t there been more Ava DuVernays? Why haven’t there been more black directors overall? Or more Black Panthers? There have been, but this history is not necessarily been raised up.

One of my favorite muses and inspirations is Melvin Van Peebles – if you haven’t checked him out – blacksploitation cinema, the whole Sweetback’s Badass Song. He’s an old friend of mine. I’ve thrown birthday parties for him. We’ve had whisky late at night, talking about cinema. He’s a great guy.

So me and him were talking about Micheaux, and he’s like “You know, all those films, people used to feel like you had these rules, and you still had to be able to stick to that rule.

I don’t know if anybody knows Earth Wind and Fire? They’re legendary. They scored his films in the garage in his basement.

What I was thinking about when I scored Body and Soul were some of the issues around how a sound track and re-update a very historical film, but give you a new dimension into how that story will unfold.

 

DJ Spooky (left) with Melvin Van Peebles (middle). Photo by: Rosemary Miller

I executive produced the box set. It’s a five DVD box set. By the way, we did with the Library of Congress and the support of Martin Scorsese’s Foundation for the Restoration of Historical Cinema and high definition prints.

Basic vibe: it’s really a lot of work to do this, and it’s very heartwarming that SF MOMA has embraced this idea of creating a conversation between historic and contemporary cinema.

So, as we begin the film, I just want everyone to think of this as a living room session. It’s very relaxed.

Paul Robeson – Body and Soul (silent) – Oscar Micheaux, 1925.

(One way to think of it) is that we’re watching an early film that was sort of a protest against this crazy KKK film, but it’s much cooler.

In this weird Trump Dystopian Bizarre Feverish Lunatic Dream of White Supremacy that we’re kind of trying to deprogram out of, these kinds of films, and these kinds of gatherings, are where people from different perspectives, races, classes, come together and think: “How does cinema change our vision of things?”

Don’t forget, most people in the Trump administration were involved with film. Whether it be Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin or the Mootch guy (Anthony Scaramucci).

Steve Bannon was also a producer, and of course Trump comes out of reality TV. So, we can easily see how they try to apply cinematic narrative to this nightmarish shitstorm of an administration. And you can see we can use film to deprogram and decolonize people’s perspective. So that’s hopefully what tonight is about! So, thank you for coming out!

-End Transcription.

You can read more about the Pioneers of African-American Cinema DVD Box Set, including the Extensive Blu Ray notes with full listings for all of the films.

Pioneers of African-American Cinema DVD Box Set:
http://djspooky.com/pioneers-of-african-american-cinema/

Extensive Blu Ray notes with full listing:
https://www.kinolorber.com/product/pioneers-of-african-american-cinema-blu-ray

Excerpt of “Body and Soul” on YouTube:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9-QRefd5GQ

Discussion (by Producer Brett Wood) of the Restoration here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vzMNCYzf3Y

DJ Spooky’s Movie Page:
http://djspooky.com/movies/

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