Spike Lee was nearly kicked out of NYU for his The Birth of a Nation short

The iconic filmmaker has spoken about his short The Answer - and how its questioning of the cinematic canon caused controversy amongst the faculty

Clarisse Loughrey
Monday 15 August 2016 15:17 BST

An early frontrunner in this year's Oscars race is Nate Parker's bold reclamation of cinematic history in The Birth of a Nation.

Taking its name from D.W. Griffith's deeply infamous, notoriously racist 1915 silent film, which at one point heroises the founding of the KKK; Parker's work turns the lens to the story of Nat Turner (played by Parker himself), an enslaved preacher who utilised his voice to lead a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.

However, it turns out Parker isn't the first filmmaker to have attempted such a reclamation; with Spike Lee once writing, directing, and producing short The Answer in the early '80s, during his time at NYU - a film which sees a black filmmaker hired by a major studio to remake The Birth of a Nation.

Speaking to Pharell Williams on YouTube's Reserve Channel, Lee revealed that The Answer caused a great amount of controversy amongst the faculty, "At NYU they showed the film, talked about the great innovations that D.W. Griffith came up with… well, they never talked about how this film was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan and was responsible for black people getting lynched."

"The faculty took it like I was attacking the father of cinema, so they kicked me out." Lee stated, before revealing a lucky twist of fate. "Someone said, 'We can’t kick him out because we gave him an assistantship for next year already.' I worked in the equipment room, and I was the hardest worker in there, so they rewarded me for that… If the evaluations had come first, before the assistantship, I’d have been kicked out of school!"

The Birth Of A Nation - Trailer

Funnily enough, Lee's story is reminiscent of a scene in Justin Simien's 2014 film Dear White People, in which college student Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) creates a more deliberately provocative riff on the silent film, entitled Rebirth of a Nation, much to the eventual disdain of her white classmates.

Indeed, Lee's story is only further proof of the substantial symbolic power behind rewriting The Birth of a Nation, and the importance of constantly questioning and re-addressing what is a resolutely flawed cinematic canon.

The Birth of a Nation hits UK cinemas 20 January 2017.

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