May 20, 2007

CSA: Confederate States of America

CSA: The Confederate States of AmericaImagine we live in an alternate reality where the South won the Civil War. Now imagine you're watching a local TV station one evening as it airs a British-made documentary about American history. "CSA: The Confederate States of America" is that documentary, complete with commercials that reflect the culture of modern Confederate America.

With a satiric eye, Willmott uses "historians" and faked news footage to show the last 143 years of American history. We see Lincoln's exile to Canada, an early D.W. Griffith silent film depicting his capture, and clips from the 1955 thriller "I Married an Abolitionist" (abolitionists where the big boogeymen in the '50s, rather than Communists). A commercial advertises daily reruns of "Leave It to Beulah," about a sassy slave in a white household. Before the documentary begins, viewers are warned that, due to its controversial nature (it was made by anti-slavery Brits, after all), it may not be suitable "for children or servants."

Willmott's imagination about how history would have changed with a Southern victory is perceptive and sharp. The Confederacy actually did have plans to colonize Latin America, so Willmott uses that. The anti-Negro philosophies of the day, made law by the new Confederate States of America, evolve into anti-everything, putting the C.S.A. right in line with Hitler when he comes along.

Some of the faked stock footage and newsreels are remarkably well done, notably the aforementioned D.W. Griffith short, which is also raucously funny. But others are obviously low-budget and shoddily made, and few of the actors are convincing. One of the keys to success here is making this faux documentary and its accompanying TV commercials look legit, and much of the material just doesn't cut it.
Irreverent rewrite of history is hilariousIt is in this vision of an America that never abolished slavery that "CSA" is most successful. The alternate history is more problematic, mostly due to its adherence to the existing timeline of historical events. The country still enters into a war with Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, although in this version America launches the sneak attack. John Kennedy, an abolition-preaching Republican, still defeats Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, and is still assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Obviously, had such a cataclysmic upset as a Southern victory in the Civil War occurred, these events would not have occurred.

Less significant issues such as "Dixie" being the national anthem are nonetheless disconcerting. Since the song was written by a former slave, it would not exist had slavery not been abolished. More serious is the supposition that the genocide against the Indians would have been carried out by the Southern cavalry, when it was exclusively a result of western expansion by the North.

"CSA" is best when inventing, not amending, history. The idea that Canada, by welcoming runaway slaves and pro-abolitionist refugees, would have become the birthplace of rock 'n' roll while the culture of the United States would have been limited to government propaganda, is only one of many hilarious what-ifs offered by this often remarkable film.
Comment:  I'd say these reviews sum up the strengths and weakenesses of CSA accurately. But I don't agree with the comment about the Indians. If the South had won and taken control of the country, it would've expanded just as the North expanded. Southerners had no special tolerance for Indians that I'm aware of.

In fact, CSA makes a good case that the more religiously oriented South would've believed in Manifest Destiny even more fervently than the North did. In the movie, the South exercises this belief by invading and conquering Latin America. If you buy that, you must also buy that the CSA would've dominated America's Indians.

Other than the bit on the Indian Wars, CSA mentions Indians once more: when it shows two football teams named the Washington Indians and the New York Niggers. This is a brief but effective comment on the mascot issue. In the racist society of CSA, the team names and mascots are little different from ours. We don't mock blacks with mascots, but we still mock Indians.

It would be interesting to see a mockumentary of Jake Page's Apacheria, perhaps the best alternative history featuring American Indians. This movie would explore and elucidate many Anglo/Indian issues. Mr. Page, if you're reading this, let's talk.

Rob's rating of CSA: 7.5 of 10.

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