Friday, August 18, 2006

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America
Review by Sombrero Grande

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is an amazing film. Trying to describe it gets a little complicated, however. The movie plays out as if the viewer exists in an alternate version of the present with the catalyst that skewed events in an alternate direction being the South wining the Civil War. In this world, Americans still own slaves. The film opens as if the viewer is watching a San Francisco Confederate TV station that is about to broadcast a controversial British-made documentary about the Confederate States of America. Periodically throughout the film there are “commercial interruptions” as if it were an actual TV broadcast, and these fake ads run in tonal contrast to the “foreign” documentary. The fake documentary gives viewers an “outside looking in” perspective while the commercials are geared to appeal to the modern Confederate viewership. Combined, they give the audience a sense of how the world might have been had the South triumphed over the North, forever changing not only the history of the no-longer United States of America but also countries all around the globe. The similarities between this alternate history and our own are what make C.S.A. an eerily disquieting and immensely enjoyable piece of charged entertainment.

C.S.A. succeeds on many levels. On one level it successfully creates a largely believable mockumentary, implementing real archival photos and footage with a different narrative spin and adding in new footage and pictures made (for the most part) to look as though they fit into history as well. One can still tell the actual from the manufactured photos and footage, but they’re believable enough not to distract too much from the storyline presented. Only the “1940s” RKO film footage stood out to me as looking a little too polished and modern in its presentation.

The film opens with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” C.S.A. succeeds again in managing to get its unsettling point very clearly across in a manner which is very entertaining and, at times, very funny in an uncomfortable sort of way. There are a lot of “is it okay to be laughing at this?” moments in the film. Imagine taking some of the racial types of jokes seen on In Living Color and Chappelle’s Show and ratcheting them up another few notches. The commercials are unflinchingly racist, pulling no punches as whites are seen using products like Niggerhair cigarettes and Darkie Toothpaste and eating at Coon Chicken Inn. The audience laughs at the ridiculousness of these products, and plot developments such as a white doctor’s diagnosis that a psychological disease called “Drapetomania” is what causes slaves to want to run away, until the end of C.S.A. when the film breaks the fourth wall and points out that all the advertised products were real at some point in American history (all originating long after the North won the Civil War and lasting well into the 20th century) and that the “Drapetomania” story was also historical fact. In fact, fans of the film Ghost World will remember that Coon Chicken Inn played a memorable part in that film. The point is made very clear in C.S.A. about how easy it is to overlook aspects of slavery when it becomes so ingrained into a country’s culture. While viewers are still reeling over how anyone could be so blind as to allow such obviously racist products and mascots to last for so long, C.S.A. delivers its final punch to the gut with the assertion, “just ask Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.”

In addition to pointing out actual racist products, other commercials put slavery in the context of modern times give it an immediate impact. Ads run for products like “The Shackle,” an electronic device that promises to shock slaves who attempt to escape, and the Slave Shopping Network allows whites to purchase slave families (or individuals since they will break them up to sell separately) from the comfort of their own home.

C.S.A. also succeeds in making the way in which events unfold in its alternate timeline feel scarily plausible. After the Civil War, the leaders of the Confederacy annex the Northern states and worry about how to unite with the Northerners they alienated. It’s brought up that not too long ago the Northerners owned slaves too and if they were to own slaves again that could help to unify the divided sides. So the Confederate leaders impose a heavy tax on the Northerners that will only be charged if they refuse to own slaves. The few “true” abolitionists defect to Canada and the rest of the North finds it surprisingly easy to revert back to its old slave-owning ways. Even though this unites the American states, it creates a bitter division with Canada to the point where the C.S.A. and Canada enter into a Cold War after World War II. Confederate propaganda is circulated in the 1950s and onward, warning about “abolitionist infiltration” and mirroring our own McCarthy era fear of Communists. The audience laughs at the intentionally humorous juxtapositions presented, but it’s a nervous laugh, a laugh spiced with frightening realization.

Another success of the film lies it its ability to not only entertain while making its message known, but by executing it in subtle ways the audience won’t always catch the first time through. One commercial parodies the TV show COPS. Called “RUNAWAYS,” its theme song is similar to the song “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle, only in a culture without black influence accepted in its music, the song plays in a twangy, hillbilly style. History and film buffs should delight in the many nods to actual events and developments that writer/director Kevin Willmott has subtlety woven into his alternate timeline, including a D.W. Griffith film mocking a cowardly Abe Lincoln attempting to flee the country dressed in blackface and ‘50s propaganda films like “I Married an Abolitionist.”

The DVD features two commentary tracks by Willmott, one (with producer Rick Cowan) discussing making the film while the other specifically points out the historical facts that Willmott left in, reversed or altered in the scripting of the film; both are worth a listen, even when they repeat material. The deleted and extended scenes on the disc are amusing and short, but their proclivity to repeat ideas already stated elsewhere in the film or make extraneous gags shows why they were left out.

C.S.A. is ultimately a film I would highly recommend. It’s not only a brilliant example of how to get messages across in a manner that would make George Bernard Shaw proud, but also a very cleverly crafted piece of entertainment that will leave a lasting impression.


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