C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Just wanted to mention that I caught Kevin Willmott’s compelling mockumentary, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (IMDB), which imagines a world in which the Confederacy won the “war of northern aggression,” with General Grant surrendering to General Lee, and setting in motion an alternate history of North America in which slavery remains legal even a century after the Civil War. I mention this news in part because I had the strange surprise of seeing a friend and former colleague from Georgia Tech with a bit part in the film, but I also found it to be a remarkably interetsing, smart, and disturbing take on the history of race in the United States.

The documentary is ostensibly made by a BBC-style network offering an overview of the history of the CSA, and we are told at the film’s beginning that it is airing “by popular demand” on a local television station, and the parody of documentary form, a staple of independent film, is put to effective use here, reminding us not only of the ways in which authority is established in the kinds of expository documentaries that confer institutional authority on official versions of the truth, with the assumptions of historical victors rarely called into question.

After establishing its context with two or three mock advertisements, CSA then proceeds to tell an alternative version of history that resembles and diverges from our own, recalling P.K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, as several reviewers have pointed out. Using this alternate-reality approach, Willmott is able to imagine the worst excesses of the fantasies of Confederate leaders brought to life. In Willmott’s alternative history, Confederate leaders after the war embark on an aggressive campaign to colonize much of South America, leaving only Canada as a significant rival (and an alternative Cold War foe, complete with a wall dividing the two countries) in the Americas. The CSA leadership also provides “tax incentives” for northern factories to return to the practice of slavery even against the country’s economic interests, with one contemporary historian reflecting that the country’s identity was “too important” in comparison with the financial gain. The CSA even joins in an alliance with Hitler during World War II although they regard his “final solution” as wasteful of human labor. While CSA’s history imagines a bleak alternative, many of the policies reflect real goals of some Confederate leaders who imagined an entire continent (or two) under American control “from Maine to Santiago” as one mock children’s song would have it.

Willmott, a professor of film studies at the University of Kansas, is at his best when critiquing the hsitory of racist representations in popular culture, especially during mock advertisements and public service announcements that interrupt the documentary narrative. These commercials include ads for a fuel additive along the lines of STP that parodies The Dukes of Hazzard, a show about capturing runaway slaves that recalls the racial dynamic of COPS, and a restaurant modeled on the now-defunct chain, Sambo’s. Similarly, the mockumentary features a mock-D.W. Griffith film in which a discredited Abraham Lincoln is arrested while trying to escape to Canada via the “underground railroad,” while wearing blackface (sequences that reminded most reviewers, including myself of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled). As these mock advertisements and films illustrate, racist images have continued to be used to sell everything from rice to maple syrup, a point that Wilmott hammers home in an epilogue that reminds us that manyof his “mock” ads were based on real products.

To convey many of his arguments about the relationship between history and image, Willmott makes use of quite a bit of archival footage, both manufactured and real, with much of the real footage digitally manipulated in a manner that recalls the techniques used in Forrest Gump, with the film’s hero–coincidentally named after a Confederate general–obliviously drifting through the history of twentieth-century America. In fact, CSA might be regarded as the anti-Gump, depicting the ways in which these historical images continue to haunt us rather than Gump’s utopian journey through time in which Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and the women’s rights movement are magically resolved through Forrest’s experiences.

I didn’t intend to write such a long review of the film, but as I began writing, I became taken by Willmott’s attentive critique of the role of images and icons in constructing national identity and wanted to highlight this remarkable little film.

6 Comments »

  1. Chris Said,

    September 4, 2006 @ 10:44 am

    It was a fantastic film. I was particularly taken with the DW Griffith ‘re-creation’ and the “archival footage” of Lincoln, later in his life, discussing his regrets. One thing I really found interesting was how Wilmott turned history around — so, as outlandish as this story seems, it’s based on actual events that occurred to “the other side” (i.e., Jefferson Davis’s post-war experiences play out with Lincoln as the disgraced ex-president).

    Excellent film — an excellent use of the mock doc form, IMO.

  2. Chuck Said,

    September 4, 2006 @ 2:49 pm

    The historical echoes between the CSA history and US history were very effective, not only in the presentation of Lincoln and Davis but also in the depiction of the Kennedy-Nixon debate (amusing that the two had switched parties).

  3. A. Horbal Said,

    September 5, 2006 @ 9:43 am

    This came and went in Pittsburgh and on IFC On Demand but I skipped it because I didn’t hear anything about it that compelled me to go. I was skeptical that there would be anything new that wasn’t treated well already in more “traditional” documentaries like Ethnic Notions, and I was worried that the What If history aspect might be cartoonish and tiring.

    But now I’ll have to make a point of seeking this out…

  4. Chuck Said,

    September 5, 2006 @ 10:47 am

    I know youcan get it on Netflix and GreenCine. I may have skipped it for similar reasons, especially since I had so many things going on in DC last year when it played there (CSA *may* have had the bad luck of hitting DC when a film festival was happening).

    The alternate history angle is easy to do poorly, but this is a very smart, insightful film.

  5. heidi Said,

    September 11, 2006 @ 12:53 am

    Encouragingly, this film repeatedly sold out Screenland‘s theater when it played a Kansas City run.

  6. Chuck Said,

    September 11, 2006 @ 1:01 am

    Very cool. I’m always happy when smart, interesting films find a wider audience.

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