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

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004; Directed by Kevin Willmott)

The landing module was the General Lee.

Kevin Willmott’s satirical mockumentary about an alternate stream of American history in which the South wins the Civil War (in military fact rather than in the form of long-term cultural osmosis in which it’s been more successful) and slavery is preserved to the present day can be searingly ironic when it isn’t handcuffed by dubious production values and corny amateurish unsubtlety. Inspired by and largely parodying Ken Burns’ utterly sober PBS documentary The Civil War, C.S.A. frankensteins together Burns’ filmed-history-book method with political/cultural spec-fic like Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America or Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, tossing in the steely and shocking deployment of offensive (and once-accepted) racial stereotypes as surreal humour common to The Chappelle Show and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (the latter “presents” the film alongside IFC) for good measure. The result is a notable film with an uncompromising view of racial relations in America that nonetheless leaves you wishing for a little more coherence and aesthetic polish to go alongside the outrage.

Although a progressive viewer is meant to be appalled by the manner in which Willmott’s imagined Confederate States of America develops under the aegis of an antebellum white supremacist economy and ideology after France and England step in to help the South win at Gettysburg, much like Judge’s Idiocracy, the deepest laughs here come from the slightest of exaggerations. The new C.S.A. demanding reparations from Canada for sheltering its runaway slaves is an irony matched by the current vogue among the white-dominated Tea Party far right for conceiving of themselves (and not America’s still-oppressed minorities) as the party most aggrieved by racism.

Indeed, Willmott turns Canada into a practical parody of the supposed socialist paradise that American liberals love to think it is. Taking on not only athletic and creative African-Americans (Jesse Owens, James Baldwin, etc.) of note but also an array of white abolitionist exiles like Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Canada reaps the cultural and social rewards that America did from the influence of former slaves and their liberal supporters. Short of the Kennedys, who remain the romantic martyrs of domestic liberalism, all of the good of progressive America migrates past the 49th parallel; even rock and roll originates north of the border, and Canada replaces the Soviet Union in a re-jigged Cold War stand-off, complete with a terrorist splinter group.

Back to the plantation with you!

Furthermore, the post-Civil War C.S.A. expands its supremacist order even more widely than the real-world U.S.A. did, or perhaps just as widely but more overtly and aggressively. Stymied by Canada in the north, the Confederates conquer the rest of the Americas throughout the decades that follow Reconstruction (which itself is about selling slavery back to the North and expanding it westward, where the Chinese railroad labourers became slaves in legal fact rather than just in practice). The Confederate leadership evidently planned to expand plantation economic society into the Caribbean and Central and South America in historical fact, and in this historical fiction, they set up a white-ruled apartheid from Mexico to Argentina. In concert with this, Native peoples are still decimated, domestic pro-Christian laws confine Jews to a Long Island “reservation”, and anyone who is not able to prove their Caucasian heritage beyond a shadow of a doubt instantly becomes chattel. The Confederates later find common ground with their fellow Aryans in Nazi Germany and do not enter WWII in Europe; they do, however, launch an imperial war against Japan, with Pearl Harbour turning the other way into an Confederate sneak attack. Such scenarios seem far-fetched, but American cultural imperialism in the Americas and Japan are only a little less prevalent than outright military conquest, and the American Right of the 1930s and early ’40s cozied up to Hitler’s Reich much more than their successors now like to admit to.

The film’s best examples of outrageous satire that turn out to be not entirely far-fetched are the commercials for products based on racial stereotypes that are interspersed with the faux-documentary broadcast on Confederate history. As offensive as many of these products (like Darky Toothpaste, Niggerhair Cigarettes, and a Southern-style restaurant called Coon Chicken Inn) seem to us now, practically all of them existed at one time, and Willmott doesn’t ignore still-current examples like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Even ads for the medical study and curing of slaves’ desire for escape and an electronic servant-monitoring device called the Shackle are only slight elaborations on beliefs and practices that were once prevalent.

Despite the film’s ferocious rabble-rousing intelligence and well-researched basis, though, it comes across as forced and hucksterish at times. Willmott runs out of shocking racist stereotypes and terms to deploy about halfway through C.S.A. and just starts re-using them to lessened effect. The force of his ideas is also greatly hamstrung by his budget, which looks to have been miniscule. There’s one animated ad that’s embarrassingly rudimentary and ought to have been scrapped, and the awful acting gets a bit grating after a while.

“We both niggers now, Mr. President!”

Even his ideas fall a bit short now and then, especially his alternate-history speculation. Would a few foreign divisions really have been enough to turn the Civil War’s tide for the South? How was Hitler defeated without American involvement? Why would the expansionist and belligerent C.S.A., capable of conquering all of South America, wait until the 1950s to clash openly with Canada, and then only launch a few retaliatory air strikes? How much of the unprecedented growth of the States in the century after the Civil War could really have been accomplished when saddled by a system of such evident economic inefficiency as slavery? We’re left with questions, questions, and more questions.

But that Willmott has us asking questions about racial issues in a country that works very hard to ignore them is ultimately more to his credit than to his detriment. C.S.A. is a crude film in both technical execution and, often, in ideological terms, but it’s also fearless about presenting a harsh view of the darker side of Lost Cause romanticism. As if, the film tells us without any qualms, there could be any other sort of view.

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