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

"Good"

C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America Review


The photo in the film's opening montage is familiar, it's the shot of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima, only there's something just a bit off: the flag they're raising is a Confederate one. This is the sort of image often used for the covers of alternative history novels, usually under a tagline reading something like: "What if the SOUTH had WON THE CIVIL WAR?" It's also, in short, the premise of Kevin Willmott's faux documentary CSA: Confederate States of America, a transmission from a future that could have been.

What's most jarring - in both good and bad ways - about CSA is the sheer mundanity of its presentation. Instead of a screen crawl providing historical background, Willmott starts off with a commercial, one of those too-bright, too-loud ads that run constantly on cable news channels in the wee hours, featuring your typical white suburban family happy that they (and their smiling black slave) are protected by Confederated Life Insurance. Then it's on to the main program: a British documentary about the history of the CSA, which will tell in sweeping, Ken Burns-esque terms the entire story from the Union defeat at Gettysburg to the grim 21st century present, where slavery is not just legal, it's encouraged as good for the whole country.

In most alternative history, the primary satisfaction comes in the scenarios constructed, seeing at what point the author decided to branch off their new history from the old one and where they went with it. In that sense, Willmott shows that he has a good head for this sort of thing. While the historical divergence point - the Confederacy finally persuades Britain and France to join their side, effecting a Union surrender in 1864 - may be a bit creaky (Britain was too staunchly anti-slavery to have ever done such a thing), many of the following details are imaginatively worked out and for the most part quite believable.

While sometimes cheaply presented, CSA has its fill of shocking moments of frisson, the coulda-been that disrupts the standard, comforting flow of schoolbook history. An ancient-seeming filmstrip that records the last words of Lincoln, spoken from exile in Canada. Photographs of Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Susan B. Anthony are used as examples of the northerners who leave for Canada after the Union's defeat. Footage of a 1960 speech by John F. Kennedy describing half the world as "enslaved" and the other half free is presented as him speaking as an abolitionist - this when in reality JFK was speaking about Communism. Much of the film is buttressed by historical reality; Willmott's having the Confederacy conquer all of Latin America (and then imposing a system of apartheid) seems a stretch at first, but in fact the Confederacy discussed doing just such that, creating a "tropical empire" to the south. Other things just make sense, like the Confederacy not taking up arms against Hitler, and the postwar paranoia scare using abolitionists instead of Communists as scapegoats (an uncommonly clever bit is a faked-up snippet from a 1951 exploitation film, I Married an Abolitionist).

To heighten the sense of this all being just another TV documentary, Willmott structures it as a long skein of talking-head scholar interviews stitched together with archival photos, film snippets, and a soothingly erudite British narrator. As such, it can lure one into occasionally believing that one is watching the real thing, and it's hard to imagine a higher compliment. The problem with Willmott's approach, though, is not the story he's telling, it's the skills he's brought to the table. The actors are for the most part an amateurish and unconvincing lot, while the fake ads running during commercial breaks are not only poorly produced, they're a thin joke that sours with repetition.

If the world constructed by CSA can seem at times shrill and cheap, however, that may in fact be a good indication of what this world would have been like to live in. All one has to do is look at the scenes from a fake D.W. Griffith film about the capture by Confederate soldiers of Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln, whom she had put in blackface to help him escape into Canada (the irony can sometimes be heavy-handed, if effective). The actors caper shamelessly, the film is jumpy and poorly put together, the taunting of a cornered Lincoln difficult to behold. It seems at first just a schlocky send-up of Griffith. But then all one needs do is remember what Griffith actually did with Birth of a Nation - that crude and twisted fairy tale of racial vengeance that could, shockingly, somehow be produced in a world where the Union and the Emancipation Proclamation reigned victorious - to imagine what sort of vile country we would inhabit today had the opposite turned out to be true.

Where'd I leave my copy of An Actor Prepares?



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

Facts and Figures

Run time: 89 mins

In Theaters: Friday 24th June 2005

Box Office USA: $0.4M

Distributed by: IFC Films

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Fresh: 51 Rotten: 14

IMDB: 6.4 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Kevin Willmott

Producer: Rick Cowan

Starring: Greg Kirsch as Confederate Family Dad, Rupert Pate as Sherman Hoyle, Ryan L. Carroll as Bobby, Brian Paulette as Jefferson Davis, Larry Peterson as John Ambrose Fauntroy V

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