"What if the South won the Civil War?" Kevin Willmott's C.S.A. (The Confederate States of America) is a brilliant satirical science fiction mockumentary based on this premise. The piece takes the form of a "controversial" British-produced historical documentary being aired for the first time in the "Confederate States of America." Like the Ken-Burns documentaries it imitates, C.S.A. is mainly based on photographs and "historical" documents, but also includes clips from fictional films such as "I Married an Abolitionist!" and a D.W. Griffith film depicting the capture of Abraham Lincoln's attempt to escape to Canada in blackface ("Dishonest Abe"). Nixon and Reagan even make cameo appearances as mainstream pro-slavery politicians (recalling the latter's famous racist campaign reference to "states rights").
C.S.A. may be low-budget, but it is written and executed perfectly, managing to make you think, laugh, and gasp from shock and horror all at once. This is no one-note skit, but a skillful, completely realized nightmare vision of an imperialist America where African- and Asian-Americans are slaves, all of South America is a colonized apartheid state, the few remaining Jews live on reservations, and women have yet to receive suffrage. An America who sided with Hitler in World War II but still bombed Hiroshima, an America whose only ally in the world is South Africa and who dreams of enslaving all the non-white, non-Christian peoples of the world.
Yet somehow, like one of Dave Chappelle's skits about the KKK, C.S.A. manages to be genuinely funny (if you don't believe me, watch the trailer). Appropriately enough, it 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."
Because of course what is most shocking about the fictional world of C.S.A. is that it is all-too-familiar. And the movie includes real historical figures like prominent Louisiana physician Samuel A. Cartwright, who diagnosed runaway slaves with what he called "drapetomania"—a mental illness characterized by an unhealthy obsession with freedom and running away. And as a television broadcast it is interspersed with commercials for the "Home Slave Shopping Network", radio-powered slave shackles, a C.O.P.S.-style shop called "Runaway" and racist products like "Darky Toothpaste" and "Niggerhair Cigarettes" --the latter two, of course, both being actual products sold in this country until all-too-recently.
Hell, forget all too recently. How about now? The trade in racist memorabilia is alive and well. Last April, Masheka and I took a trip to New Orleans and were horrified to discover that EVERY SINGLE gift shop we went into in the French Quarter sold statues or placards or candy featuring the worst kind of old-school racist caricature-based blackface imagery ("aunty", "uncle" and "pickaninny" characters with giant red lips and bulging white eyes) under the cover of nostalgia. We started making a depressing game of it, almost, seeing how long it would take us to "spot the slavery" nostalgia products in each shop. The whole mess was so frustrating we ended up not buying any souvenirs at all.
But back to C.S.A. The movie premiered at Sundance in 2004, but is only now going into a limited nationwide release (I saw it this weekend in New York). Highly, highly recommended. Rating: **** 1/2 (4.5 out of a possible 5 stars).
- For more reading and viewing...
- On The Media has an excellent radio interview with Kevin Willmott (quote "anything can become normal if you work to make it normal").
- The CSA official movie website has a trailer, a CSA timeline, and even a fake "CSA today" newspaper (with headlines like "Kansas proves Intelligent Design in courts" and "Slave trade soars 13%, Democrats credit Bush's Slave Defense Initiative" and an article about sports that links to info about Indian mascots.)
- For more movie reviews, see the C.S.A. page at Rotten Tomatoes.
- For a good movie on related themes, see Spike Lee's Bamboozled. (Incidentally, Mr. Lee had a hand in producing C.S.A.).
- See an earlier post I wrote on alternate histories and Newt Gingrich's horrible science-fiction novel "Gettysburg", which was a much rosier imagining of the South's winning the "War of Northern Aggression."
- For some actual GOOD alternative history dystopias, see Stephen Barnes' excellent "Lion's Blood: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America" and Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle."
- I've also heard good things about Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, but haven't read it yet myself.
- Octavia Butler's "Kindred" isn't an alternate history, but it is a brilliant and haunting time-travel novel about slavery and family.
- C.S.A. makes passing mention of black slave-owners, a topic explored by Edward P. Jones in his amazing novel The Known World.