If the Confederacy had won the Civil War, would blacks still be enslaved? Would women vote? Would the United States have colluded with Hitler — or at least pledged noninterference? If the Emancipation Proclamation had been merely a rhetorical gesture from a president who would soon be exiled to Canada (after being captured in blackface), would the United States be a world power promoting the enslavement of entire races in the name of freedom? Those are the questions asked by CSA: The Confederate States of America, a mock documentary by writer/director Kevin Willmott.
Wacky, hodgepodge, and decidedly homemade, CSA nevertheless is worth seeing. Sure, it veers off into nonsense, and there are times when the film loses its center. But the premise, the passion, and the scathing political commentary ultimately keep CSA afloat. If nothing else, the film wins points for bravery, for its willingness to damn current U.S. policies and to expose racism so institutionalized that many don't even notice it (by comparing both to a state of enslavement). Willmott's Confederate States of America is eerily, harrowingly similar to the United States we already know.
Presented as a documentary produced by the fictional British Broadcasting Service, CSA is narrated by an Englishman (Charles Frank) and punctuated by tragicomic mock commercials in the vein of SNL. It purports to expose the real history of the CSA, something apparently being kept from residents of the country, since the channel broadcasting it denies any responsibility for the contents. Beginning with the Civil War, in which Grant surrenders to Lee and President Lincoln appeals to Harriet Tubman to secret him to safety, the film traces the history of a country called the CSA from Reconstruction through the present day. It's an idea movie, and a juicy one at that.
The way Willmott sees it, the Confederate States of America would have retained and promoted slavery, imposing tax burdens on Northerners that could be waived only by their purchase of slaves. Using the real-life Confederate agenda, which Willmott first encountered in Ken Burns' Civil War documentary, the film portrays an ever-expanding empire in which the CSA enslaves Western Chinese workers, conquers Central and South America, and develops a police state in which citizens are required to alert authorities to the presence of free people of “questionable racial origin.” Boston and New York are burned, Jews are exiled (though a few are permitted to live on a reservation on Long Island), liberals and intellectuals flee to Canada. The word “slave” is dropped in favor of “servant.” Willmott could have chosen a cleverer term; certainly the CSA would have developed an even more Orwellian idiom, calling enslaved people “assistants,” “wards,” or “beneficiaries.”
And that's far from the only problem with CSA. Willmott is constantly breaking his own spell, loosening the suspension of disbelief and sending it careening groundward. For instance, for “source material” CSA uses quite a few “Hollywood films,” supposed dramatic movies that came out in the '40s and '50s and depicted aspects of American history. Of course, no actual documentary would use works of fiction for its sources — especially not one produced by a venerable British broadcasting company — and these odd constructs rupture Willmott's illusion, which is fragile in any case. In fact, he goes one worse and presents a film of Abraham Lincoln — supposedly real footage taken when the ex-president lived as an exile in Canada and, nearing death, decried the state of the Confederacy. Assuming that Lincoln had lived to 80, the year would be 1889, still well before the days of talking movies. So … bad choice. Adding insult to injury, the actor playing Lincoln doesn't come close to pulling it off, though it's hard to blame him. Lincoln? You need Ian McKellen for that.
The fake commercials are equally wobbly. Those that work well are piercing and dark, as when an insurance company pledging to protect “your family … and your property” pans to an African-American gardener. There's another for a television show that looks exactly like COPS, including the fact that all of the arrestees are black. But some of the commercials have such poor production values and amateur acting that whatever power they might have had is lost.
Still, for all its faults, CSA springs from a smart premise and is loaded with interesting ideas. As we watch, an underlying chill deepens and ramifies, as various aspects of the CSA line up with facets of contemporary life in the U.S. As the parallels accrue, we get a remarkable look at what slavery and racism have done to African-Americans, and we see how the legacy of slavery plays out in the media and in our lives.