Film

C.S.A.: Confederate States of America (2004)

The most alarming thing about C.S.A.: Confederate States of America is how utterly unalarming it seems.

C.S.A.: Confederate States of America

Director: Kevin Willmott
Cast: Evamarii Johnson, Rupert Pate, Larry J. Peterson, Charles Frank
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: IFC
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2006-02-15
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 our way of life.

-- Kevin Willmott, Director's Statement

The most alarming thing about C.S.A.: Confederate States of America is how utterly unalarming it seems. Kevin Willmott's mock documentary adopts the Burns brothers' stylings, aimed at discerning public television viewers, earnest and carefully scored, sentimental and unsubtle. The subject here is the history of the grand C.S.A., that is, what the U.S.A. would have been had the South won the War. That would be the Civil War, also known as the "War of Northern Aggression."

In this version of events, the war that supposedly settled American moral, political, and legal of personhood inverts the primary result, namely, that an elaborate system of slavery remains intact in the C.S., that the C.S. expands (by way of the Spanish-Confederate War) into Mexico "The selling of the American way elevated the Confederacy out of the Depression," notes one interviewee), aligns with Hitler (advising him, however, that slavery is a more effective means of maintaining white supremacy than genocide), and demonizes anti-slavery activists (the movie, I Married an Abolitionist! is released in 1955).

And yet, as awful as this alternative history-into-present is, the trappings are remarkably familiar. Framed as something of a scandal because it presents alternating views of the C.S., the documentary is narrated by a "foreigner," the British Charles Frank, tracking the rise of the Confederacy after its defeat of the North (this achieved by help from French and British forces). Abraham Lincoln is forced into Canadian exile, the one-drop rule affects subsequent property laws, and the "Dixie" becomes the national anthem. And commercial culture -- what Willmott calls "our way of life" -- celebrates Caucasian "manifest destiny."

Predictable and sometimes painfully banal, the documentary proceeds from one section to another ("Reconstruction" to "Birth of a Nation" to "A Tropical Empire") by way of insipid transitions (lengthy fade-outs and -ins, violin music, somber title cards). It includes film clips that emulate real-historical artifacts: D.W. Griffith's The Hunt of Dishonest Abe features the disgraced Lincoln trying to escape a trial by way of Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad and a blackface disguise; he dances before his captors in a manner that resembles the blackface performances in Birth of a Nation ("I'z a darky!"). And a performance by a famous Shakespearean actor (Mark Robbins) as "Popsy" in the melodramatic Jefferson Davis Story, recalls those of Olivier or Welles as Othello. In this instance, the actor lurches between an affected British accent and colloquial "slave" speech (requesting an audience with Davis (Brian Paulette), he shuffles: "May an old, no-count darky like me ax a question, sir?"), while reenacting the pivotal moment when Popsy advised his master to reintroduce slavery into the defeated Northern economy, thus saving the national economy.

Such moments are appropriately awkward, as are those when the documentary traces efforts to justify slavery, straight-up outrageous fantasies based on real-historical explanations of white superiority, as these organize medical and legal thinking. So, one Dr. Cartwright's account of "drapetomania" (the inexplicable desire to escape slavery) is set alongside arguments that sentimental sagas, like the hugely popular musical, A Northern Wind, create too much "sympathy" for the North. In the C.S., after the Plains Indians Wars and the southern expansion (once the white Americans install themselves, the Mexican government initiates a system called "apart," to keep blancos separate from non-blancos), sports teams have names like the "Washington Indians" and the "New York Niggers" (and, of course, only one of these names is more offensive than what actually exists).

The ponderous march through olden times is alternately narrated by two talking heads, white apologist historian Sherman Hoyle (Rupert Pate) and black anti-slave activist Patricia Johnson (Evamarii Johnson). Their very different takes on the history at hand become increasingly overt. While Johnson quietly expresses the indignation presumed for C.S.A.'s audience ("Nowhere else were slaves taught they were not part of the human family"), Hoyle never questions the basis of the system. Instead, he admits to practical arguments against slavery ("Our fond attachment to slavery is not economically viable"), while asserting its overwhelming existential and spiritual value: "Owning a slave is a constant reminder of who you are." The point is hard to miss: racism is a function of difference, however fictional, a means to define oneself in hierarchal opposition to an other. That is, the prevailing logic of national, race, and gender politics.

One recurrent figure in this philosophical and political ruckus is "current" Democratic presidential candidate John Ambrose Fauntroy V (Larry Peterson), whose ancestors also appear at various junctures (also played by Peterson). Each appearance of a Fauntroy occasions another rationale and plan to sustain slavery as a social system and basis of white self-identity. Appearing intermittently (extolling the virtues of "our dear family friend Chancellor Hitler"), Fauntroy V empodies the grim comedy and angry insights of Willmott's project. He's a buffoon who speaks the same language as many contemporary politicians, used in the name of a terrible cause that only seems strange because it's so obvious. "Imagine a nation where everyone has the same deep abiding pride in our Aryan heritage," he says. Pause for sincere glance at the camera.

Fauntroy V's absurdity is underlined by regular commercial interruptions, Robocop-ish ads for real-historical products like Sambo Axle Grease and Darky Toothpaste, educational opportunities (learn to be an overseer or a breeder), or other shows that only underline the banality make it (say, Runaway, a Cops-style with a banjo-plucky theme song and repeated images of black suspects in handcuffs with their faces smashed to the ground by slave-catchers in uniforms). While these inserts assume an audience different from you, their humor is located in their sameness. When Hoyle begins fondly recalling the antics of a beloved TV "jigaboo" -- "Willie Coon as Cleofus" -- Good Times' JJ and Family Matters' Urkel (even the "homeboys from outer space") are too close for comfort.

The distinctions between the two C.S.A.s -- documentary and film -- elide to challenge your assumptions and expectations. Where is the line drawn between offense and marketing strategy? How do images and products -- seen again and again and again -- shape their consumers? Which is more effective, the overt racism in Cops or the racism-by-omission in consistently mostly-white tv or mainstream movie casts? For all its aesthetic inelegance and obviously low budget effects, Willmott's film makes a serious point. It exposes the terrible, abiding premise that still holds up so much of today's U.S.A., that white Americans' relentless sense of privilege and rightness are not constructed, but inherent. It's a matter of faith and ownership.

Music
Books
Film
Recent
Reviews
Features
PM Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.