Friday, September 25, 2009

Rediscover: C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004)

if the Confederacy had won, there's wouldn't be a so be thankful.

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

"What if?" is perhaps the most common, if largely pointless and entirely speculative, question raised about the American Civil War (or, for those stuck in an antebellum mindset, "The War of Northern Aggression"). Despite its inherent absurdity, this question's bastard offspring - the alternative history genre - remains popular, as people of a certain persuasion will never tire of fantasized accounts of how Lee's rout of them foul Yankees at Gettysburg reshaped the course of American history for the better.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America begins with this familiar premise of a victorious Johnny Reb army but presents the aftermath in a far different light. Directed by Kevin Willmott, this 2004 mockumentary depicts America as a slave-owning and homogeneous Christian nation of the worst kind, its citizens convinced of their racial superiority and its government dominated by leaders singularly dedicated to maintaining the segregationist status quo. Cynical without being preachy and never prone to bouts of self-righteous proselytizing, C.S.A. is alternative history that is humorous, sobering and provocative.

C.S.A. is presented as a British Broadcasting Service documentary finally being aired on American television after a couple years of censorship; hinting at the prevalence of American xenophobia, the network warns that the documentary "is of foreign origin" and "may be unsuitable for children and servants." The film is presented from three different and usually contrasting perspectives. In his objective and detached tone, the British narrator actually advances the central theme of how racial prejudices become ingrained in a given society. Historian Sherman Hoyle, portrayed with just the right amount of exaggerated Southern mannerisms by Rupert Pate, advances the official party line and offers a window into how the Confederacy's legacy has been sanitized and white-washed for mass consumption. University of Montreal professor Patricia Johnson, convincingly played by Evamarii Johnson, is essentially the voice of dissent, her calm and matter-of-fact demeanor exposing the many social injustices that followed in the wake of the Union's surrender in 1864.

Willmott subtly inverts and reshapes the country's history based on actual events. In this way, the Great Depression is ended not by an increase in manufacturing brought on by World War II, but instead by a revived slave trade, while December 7, 1941 is marked by an American attack against Japan as part of the nation's "divinely ordained quest for world domination." Willmott mixes actual reel footage with doctored or invented footage to telling effect. Abraham Lincoln is shown as a frail and defeated old man in 1905, as the historian Hoyle describes the former president as a "lonely and bitter man...almost entirely forgotten by history." Viewers are shown clips of Adolf Hitler's visit to the Confederate States in 1935; the narrator later notes that the country opposed Hitler's eradication of the Jews, instead favoring their enslavement. Demonstrating a sardonic and pessimistic humor of the darkest kind, Willmott suggests that the Confederacy's brand of racial superiority was closely mirrored by that of Hitler's. Willmott's alternative world is also notable for what it excludes: there is no Civil Rights movement or cultural advancements to speak of, the obvious implication being that the systematic persecution of minority groups would have been inevitable had the South actually won the Civil War.

Equally suggestive are the commercials and PSAs that offer glimpses into contemporary Confederate life. Slavery drives the economy in various ways, with most of the products, services and advertisements being presented ironically with a nostalgic quaintness. Several commercials focus on the trappings of fine American living: a spot for Confederate Family Insurance, its logo a dignified image of Jefferson Davis, features a pretty wife, wide-eyed daughter and smiling slave, while viewers are later reminded to tune into the next episode of American Homes and Plantations. Others are more low brow: Sambo Motor Oil is the best way to keep your authentic "Dukes of Hazzard"-model General Lee running, while a law enforcement reality program called Runaway is accompanied by a bluegrass variation of Cops' well-known theme music. Astonishingly, not all these products are as far-fetched or exaggerated as one would think. As the movie closes, it's noted that Darkie Toothpaste and the Coon Chicken Inn actually existed; in the latter case, the restaurant's entrance was that of a wide-grinning train porter.

C.S.A. isn't just a study piece for academics, as this challenging gem is thoroughly compelling and manages to avoid becoming pedantic or dogmatic. It's a film about consolidation of power and how a country's history is framed by the victors. Regardless of whatever euphemisms Southern sympathizers have used over the years to justify the Confederacy's motives - "states rights," "Southern independence" - Willmott suggests this mythologizing has masked one of the defining features of the Civil War-era South: the institutionalized belief of Caucasian superiority and its possible impacts. Whether this forecasted vision of America is accurate - indeed, it presumes that the Confederacy had a realistic chance of winning the war and ignores the fact that slavery was already in decline as the war started - is irrelevant and of course impossible to prove or disprove; in his exaggerated depiction of a country segmented along racial lines, Willmott simply follows the Confederate philosophy to its logical conclusion. With a blend of satire and social commentary, C.S.A. ultimately concludes that America would have been a far less progressive, tolerant and culturally relevant nation had the South prevailed.

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