It begins like a standard TV spot for an insurance company, something you might see on a Super Bowl telecast, with soothing words about how "a man fills many roles in his lifetime." Except the company, "Confederated Life," doesn't sound familiar. And the closing section will not be playing on anyone's home screen anytime soon.
"For over 100 years, serving a people," the voice-over smoothly concludes, pausing while the camera pans slowly from a prosperous white family to a servile black man in the background as the narrator comes to the devastating close: "and their property." This is the world of "CSA: The Confederate States of America."
Written and directed by Kevin Willmott, "CSA" adroitly combines the techniques of the mock documentary with the philosophy of alternate or "what if" history. It provocatively presents the world as it would be if the South had won the Civil War and slavery persisted to this day in a Confederate union that extended from sea to shining sea, a world that, in a savage twist, is closer to the one we actually live in than we might imagine.
The idea behind Willmott's film was to make a kind of reverse-image version of Ken Burns' PBS success "The Civil War," complete with dueling talking head academics and archival photos. We're told that the film in question, made by the fictional British Broadcasting Service, was long withheld from domestic screens because of the controversial nature of its content.
The clever conceit behind "CSA" is not just to show the BBS mock documentary, but to place it in the context of an evening of Confederate network television. That means periodic breaks for commercials, lots of them, commercials that add up to the kind of ferocious satire on race in America not seen since Spike Lee (who gets a presented-by credit here) released "Bamboozled."
As an assistant professor in the film studies department of the University of Kansas, Willmott, it must be said, did not have Lee's cinematic resources or skill. "CSA" is rough around the edges, especially where the acting and some of the film's invented characters are concerned. But the way "CSA" works out its ideas is so provoking that its drawbacks are not difficult to ignore.
Willmott's shrewdest idea is to stick as close as possible to the reality of history in terms of both words and images. It's a fact that Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin tried to persuade Britain and France to interfere in the war; in the world of "CSA" he succeeds, and the resulting troop infusion turns the tide for the Southern side at Gettysburg.
The film's imaginings about what happens next are fascinating, starting with a flight to Canada of everyone from Abraham Lincoln (who dies there an almost forgotten man) to escaped slaves and abolitionists. The eventual result is a cold war with Canada and the creation of the "Cotton Curtain" between the two countries.
In taking us up to the present day in that BBS doc, Willmott uses a wide and inventive variety of bogus footage. Among the fakes are a D.W. Griffith silent film about Lincoln's escape, a 1950s pro-slavery educational documentary for schoolchildren, Hollywood films on the order of "I Married an Abolitionist" and public service announcements for government bureaus like the Office of Racial Identity, concerned with unmasking people who are passing for white.
It's "CSA's" commercials, however, that have the most bite. There's a TV spot for "Leave It to Beulah," and another for "Runaway," a reality show dealing with the capture of fugitive slaves. "The Slave Shopping Network" wants your attention, as does "Better Homes and Plantations." There are even products to buy, from "The Shackle," a kind of LoJack device for human property, to "Sambo X-15," recommended for "cleaning away stubborn black engine deposits."
Filmmaker Willmott says in a director's note that he created "CSA" out of a conviction that "in many ways, the South did win the Civil War. Maybe not on the battlefield, but they won the peace. They won the fight for their way of life." It's a tribute to the strengths of this unusual film that by its close, that sentiment doesn't seem all that farfetched.
'CSA: Confederate States of America'
MPAA rating: Unrated.
An IFC Films release. Writer-director Kevin Willmott. Producer Rick Cowan. Cinematographer Matthew Jacobson. Editors Sean Blake, David Gramly.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
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