"CSA: Confederate States of America": A Truly Independent Film About Race in America

One of the great unresolved issues of American history involves the meaning and legacy of the Civil War. Although it is now almost a century and a half in the past, the conflict and its causes are still argued amongst historians and citizens, and racial divisions continue to be a dynamic that shapes American society. The independent film "CSA: Confederate States of America," having appeared in theatres this past winter and out on DVD tomorrow, addresses this legacy directly and forthrightly--as well as controversially.

The premise of "CSA" is a hypothetical (yet amazingly specific) examination of what America might be like if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. The conceit through which writer-director Kevin Willmott treats the subject is that of a "mock documentary" chronicling the history of the Confederate States of America from the 1860s to the present. Modelled after the style of Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War," Willmott gives "CSA" (also the title of the documentary-film-within-the-film) a little supposed objectivity by having it originate from the fictional "British Broadcasting Service." The broadcast that viewers of the movie "CSA" are watching, though, is a rebroadcast of the British (mock) documentary on a CSA television station, which allows Willmott to punctuate the documentary segments with commercial breaks filled with commercials from the present-day Confederacy.

A primary characteristic of the CSA, of course, is the continuation of slavery until the present day, obviating the American civil rights movement, as well as a host of other developments from the real USA throughout the late-19th and 20th century. Despite this, one of the most striking and ingenius strokes of narrative and argumentative structure in "CSA" is the degree to which Willmott parallels CSA history with the actual events of US history. As a result, the CSA still participates in the two World Wars (including a brief alliance with Hitler in WWII) and suffers through the Great Depression. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford still make their pioneering contributions to American society. Many of the presidents are the same, much of the cultural history of the 20th century is comparable, and selected historical events (such as the moon landing pictured) happen just as they did in the real USA--only under Confederate rule.

Added twists in the hybrid CSA-USA history differentiate the real post-slavery America from the imaginary pro-slavery America. Grant surrenders to Lee at Appomattox. Lincoln goes into exile in Canada, thus avoiding assassination, and lives until the early-1900s, at which time he is seen in a primitive sound motion picture in which he discusses losing the Civil War. The CSA launches an ill-fated late-1800s occupation of South America in an attempt to establish a pan-American "tropical empire." Landmark films such as "Gone with the Wind" and D.W. Griffith's silent "The Birth of a Nation" are made in slightly different, even more racist versions, as are TV programs such as the 1950s sitcom "Beulah" (which featured a black maid serving a white household) and the reality show "Cops," which in the CSA is called "Runaways" and highlights police chasing escaped slaves rather than criminals.

To provide a coherent narrative thread and continuing characters with which to identify, Willmott weaves in the story of a dynastic family by the name of Fauntroy. Their story is traced from the Reconstruction era, when one member serves as a Senator, straight through to the 1990s, when the latest scion runs for president, only to be scandalized by the revelation of the proverbial one drop of black blood in his heritage. This climactic incident (labelled the "One Drop Scandal") is presented as a parallel to the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, right down to a copycat announcement about how Fauntroy's ancestor "did not have sexual relations with that [black] woman."

Much of the considerable humor and trenchant social commentary in "CSA" comes not from the documentary segments but from the commercials. A wide range of real US products, institutions, and mores are sent up in sometimes shocking fashion in commercials for the Slave Shopping Network, a Prozac-like pharmaceutical for making belligerent slaves docile, and a set of slave shackles advertised K-Tel style. Added to these are commercials for CSA products that really did exist in pre-civil rights USA, including Coon Chicken Inn (with a large caricatured black face as a mascot) and Gold Dust Twins cleaning powder (featured in an animated commercial where the black-skinned twins absorb all of the dirt to make a kitchen sparkle), among others.

"CSA" has been received with the expected range of heartened support and reactionary emotional response. Both on the film's own website as well as on the film's page on Yahoo Movies, message boards are filled with posts that alternately praise the film for its progressive message or condemn it for its historical legerdemain, with many of the condemnatory messages filled with the kind of hateful racism that the film is trying to counteract. Film critics have been generally positive, giving the film kudos for the mix of drama, humor, inventiveness, and ingenuity that I have been discussing.

A few of the message board comments attack the film as being typical of the "Hollywood" establishment and its liberal denizens. The problem is, "CSA" is the product of circumstances about as far as one can get from the Hollywood establishment. Willmott is a film studies professor at the University of Kansas, writing and directing films on the side but also utilizing his productions as the ultimate hands-on training for film students. Many of the actors, crew members, and key creative personnel on "CSA" were students of Willmott or cinematographer Matt Jacobson (also a KU film professor). Those that were not students were volunteers from the rest of the KU campus or from nearby Kansas City. The film was made with the equipment, soundstages, and editing facilities of the KU film school. Shooting (and reshooting) took place piecemeal, over the course of two or three years.

The film's success story took an unlikely turn when it was accepted to the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. There it became a darling of the fest, with SRO screenings and considerable buzz. Just prior to Sundance, Spike Lee agreed to provide a "presented by" credit, with the hopes that his influence and prestige would help the film find an audience. Sure enough, IFC Films bought "CSA" for national theatrical release before the Sundance projectors cooled off, and the rest, as they say (at least in this case), is alternate history.

Links related to "CSA"
Official "CSA: Confederate States of America" site
"CSA" page at Yahoo Movies
"CSA" entry on the Internet Movie Database
"CSA" DVD purchase page on Amazon

(Photo source: Yahoo Movies)

No comments: