History is written by the victors. So what would the schoolbooks say if the South had prevailed in "the war of Northern Aggression?" Would Confederate President Jefferson Davis be the father of our country and Abraham Lincoln be branded a traitor to the white race? If America became a slave nation, would we have fought Nazi Germany? Would rock 'n' roll even exist?
Anyone can spin such fascinating "what if" scenarios, but few could reveal such a visionary imagination or cutting wit as filmmaker Kevin Willmott in C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. Willmott's shadow history considers the implications of a victorious Rebel army and the prospect of the Stars and Bars waving proudly over the White House. And Iwo Jima. And the moon landing.
Willmott plots out the same kind of social implications as Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, a landmark "alternative history" novel involving Axis powers ruling occupied America. C.S.A. weds its sci-fi speculation to a subversive, uproarious sense of humor worthy of the dearly missed "Chappelle's Show." Willmott's faux-documentary presents the best kind of satire, the kind that's so thought-provoking, terrifying and funny that you don't know whether to laugh or cry.
C.S.A. unfolds as a "controversial" British documentary, presented very much along the lines of Ken Burns' The Civil War. We watch C.S.A. as if it's being broadcast "in its entirety" on a TV station in the Confederate States of America, with commercial interruptions providing glimpses of American life that's at once recognizably contemporary and an antebellum throwback. Archival material and low-key re-enactments are intercut with talking-head experts, most often between a Southern-accented white historian (Rupert Pate) and a Canadian black scholar (Evamarii Johnson).
In Willmott's history, a surprise Confederate victory at Antietam convinces European nations, intrigued by the economic possibilities of slavery, to throw in on the Southern side. After Ulysses S. Grant surrenders to Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy annexes the United States and Abraham Lincoln becomes a fugitive, fleeing on Harriet Tubman's underground railroad disguised as a black man. C.S.A. dramatizes Lincoln's arrest with an excerpt from a fictitious D.W. Griffith silent film, The Capture of Dishonest Abe, with the Great Emancipator rendered in humiliating slapstick. The clip reminds us that Griffith, despite being a cinematic pioneer, directed the virulently racist Civil War epic Birth of a Nation.
As C.S.A. moves through the decades, slavery becomes legal in all states, while black refugees and abolitionists flee to Canada. Reconstruction involves mass lynchings, represented by photos of real ones. Northern and Southern Americans reconcile thanks to novels that resemble Gone with the Wind turned upside down by emphasizing "noble" Union soldiers, while still whitewashing slavery. For narrative convenience, Willmott gives the Confederate States a Kennedy-esque political dynasty, the Fauntroys, which includes a present-day senator (Larry Peterson) reminiscent of David Duke, who's a presidential front-runner.
You can't quite call the spoof ads comic relief, since their racist, fun-house-mirror perspective inspires outright shock more than amusement. A spot for a toothpaste called "Darky" features over-the-top racial exaggeration as a voice-over praises Darky's prowess at "Gleamin' yo teefus!" The kicker, though, comes when C.S.A.'s epilogue reveals that many of its products were real: Darky Toothpaste changed its name to "Darly" in 1980 but is still marketed in Asia as "Black Man Toothpaste."
A promo for a "Cops"-style show called "Runaway," with shaky video of escaped black men getting rounded up, evokes the demonization of African-Americans in the "real" media. In a sly stylistic touch, "Runaway's" theme song sounds almost exactly like "Cops'" title track, but with a bluegrass twang. A racist, slave-holding nation would have no use for reggae or hip-hop.
C.S.A.'s politics can fit the viewers' interpretations: Some audiences will find the C.S.A. and the U.S.A. to be all but morally equal in their treatment of minorities. But if America was really so deeply racist, the minstrel-show aspects in the ads for "Coon Chicken Inn" (once a real fast-food franchise) wouldn't be so outrageous.
C.S.A. airs a bulletproof counterargument against those who claim that flying the Confederate flag or honoring the Rebel cause is not about race. No matter how sincere today's Johnny Rebs may be in saluting the positive aspects of Southern heritage, they simply cannot separate or explain away the murderous, dehumanizing institution. By projecting the horrific implications of the Confederacy across a century-and-a-half of American history, C.S.A. might convince contemporary sons of the South to stop whistling "Dixie."
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