I just saw this really great film called “CSA: The Confederate States of America.” It’s a mocumentary which envisions the history of an alternate universe in which the South won the American Civil War, now referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression.” (History is written by the victors.) It’s an excellent and entertaining lesson in how much history can change based on a single event—in this case, which side wins a war. Some parts of American history turn out radically different (such as abolitionists and slaves fleeing to Canada leading to a long Cold War between the CSA and Canada) and some parts only slightly different (such as Kennedy still being shot, only this time it’s because he favored abolition of slavery). In World War II, America is allied with Hitler and yet launches a surprise sneak attack against Japan on December 7, 1941. The mass hysteria that grips the nation in the 1950s is not fear of Communism but fear of Abolitionists. America becomes the world’s moral pariah and the only nation that remains a loyal friend is South Africa.
Director Kevin Willmot has created a world—a nation and its culture—in which racism is not subtle but overt. The peculiar institution of slavery thrives as we enter the 21st Century where slaves are traded and auctioned on the Home Shopping Network and the internet. And a key issue in a Presidential campaign is how racially-pure the candidate is. (The famous Clinton line about not having sexual relations with a particular woman is turned on its head in a very funny way.)
The movie is shown as if it were a made-for-TV movie, half in the style of Ken Burns, half in the style of a BBC documentary. And every so often it is interrupted by commercials. These commercials, both comically and shockingly, tell us much about the culture of the contemporary Confederate States of America. Real products which used racial stereotypes to advertise themselves back in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th Centuries are imagined to continue into today since there is obviously no racially-sensitive political correctness to stop it in this alternative reality. There is Black Sambo motor grease, Darkie Toothpaste, and Coon Chicken Inn (which was featured in the movie “Ghost World”—some of these others were featured in the movie “Bamboozled”). While in those cases, they are presented as reminders of a horribly racist past that we’ve mostly managed to overcome, here they are presented as objects of an unashamedly racist present.
Perhaps the most disturbing of these commercials is one for the TV show “Runaway.” Obviously based on “Cops,” it shows agents of the CBI (Confederate Bureau of Investigation) again and again, to wild music, capturing wretched looking African-Americans who are treated inhumanely and presumably returned to slavery.
So much history is covered in 90 minutes that I cannot possibly go into all of the different topics I’d like to discuss, but one of the most touching parts is what happened to Lincoln. After the South wins, he attempts to escape aided by Harriet Tubman but is captured and tried and convicted of war crimes. (W. D. Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation” is instead “The Hunt for Dishonest Abe” and recreates this event in Griffith’s comical, slapstick style.) After serving a few years in prison, Lincoln is released and exiled to Canada where he dies as a lonely old man, in 1905, when he would have been 95 years old. In an interview just before his death, he regrets he didn’t do more to help the slaves and prays that someday slavery will end in his former homeland.
Is this history simply turned on its head? Just a fun little “what if” exercise? Perhaps, but I think there is a lot more going on here. I think that Willmot is trying to make us think about the less overt racism in our own real world, by exaggerating it in his alternative world. In some ways, these things still go on. We don’t have the horrible show “Runaway,” but we do have “Cops” where real African-Americans are treated inhumanely. We don’t have Darkie Toothpaste, but we do have Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima. America didn’t launch a preemptive attack against Japan in 1941, but we did launch one against Iraq in 2003. In the contemporary South, there are still many people who want to glorify the Confederacy and claim that flying the Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol of “heritage not hate,” but this mocumentary reminds us what the Confederacy really was all about.
I recommend anyone who is interested in history or the issue of racism rent this movie. It’s not the most entertaining film of the year, but I think it is enlightening and very interesting. It doesn’t have many laughs, but the few that it does have are good ones.