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Monday, August 5, 2013

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

Written and directed by Kevin Willmott

Rupert Pate:  Sherman Hoyle
Evamaril Johnson:  Patricia Johnson
Larry Peterson:  John Ambrose Fauntroy V (and all other John Ambrose Fauntroys in vintage photos and film)

I got new glasses, and now I can type at a computer without everything going fuzzy. I've got a lot of reviewing to catch up on, so please accept my apologies for my absence from the reviewing scene and buckle up, because this movie is upsetting and awesome.

The pre-credits fake insurance commercial is the film in a microcosm. It's a pitch-perfect duplication of a commercial you've seen dozens of times, with a wise and middle-aged father looking out from his house to his kids playing in the yard. Everything's bathed in a golden haze of perfect sunlight. Everyone's pretty. Everyone's happy. Even though the voiceover guy is talking about providing for one's family after one dies, it's nothing but positive and uplifting images in slight slo-mo so everything makes a little bit greater emotional impression. And then the tag line:  "Confederate Family Insurance:  Protecting a people...and their property." Shown as a smiling, happy, subservient adolescent black boy trimming the hedges turns to the camera.

There's a dissertation that could be written about the way that thirty-second clip packs so many cultural assumptions about race, class, economics and film into its length. And the rest of the film keeps hitting the same point expertly. And yet, at the same time, the filmmakers bury their message well enough that it takes a substantial portion of the film's running time to figure out what they're really saying underneath the text of the film.

But before I go any further, I should define a term that my readers may not be all that familiar with:  "alternate history". Basically, it's a type of softer science fiction where instead of the logistics of faster-than-light travel, authors look at the way things didn't turn out to explore and comment on the ways that they did. And since the defining event in American history is the war to force secessionist traitors back into the country, many authors in this genre look at ways that things could have turned out to give readers a look into a culture both alien and familiar at the same time. Harry Turtledove, probably the best-known alternate history author, created an eleven-book series set in a world where the Confederacy broke away from the USA in 1862, won a second Civil War in 1882 and fought against the USA during both world wars.

One of the hallmarks of alternate history is seeing how real-world people show up in the newly created worlds and how they act in the new circumstances (Turtledove had Ronald Reagan as a football radio announcer in the 1930s calling himself "Dutch" in one of his books, for example). It's a way to challenge assumptions and to give quick fictive cameos to people that would be universally known in the real world; it's also a way to show just how different the newly created worlds can be. Or, in some cases, how they're really the same (J. Edgar Hoover being installed as the head of the American SS in a victorious-Nazi timeline uses the same tactics that he did as head of the FBI in our world in "K" by Daniel Easterman).

All right. Back to the film. There's layers at work here; the movie is presented as the British Broadcasting Service's controversial documentary about 150 years of Confederate American history. So right away in the fictive construct of the movie we're looking at the unofficial history, the not-necessarily-approved look from outside at a political structure, culture and people (for even greater realism, the movie was shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio; I imagine this plays a lot better on television at home than it would in a theater just because the filmmakers did such an outstanding job at duplicating a TV broadcast, down to the "viewer discretion is advised" tag at the beginning). It's also a perfectly tuned parody of the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, with vintage photos and voiceovers, old film footage, two main talking head experts explaining the Confederate world, and other commentators explaining the historical context of the Confederate society.

The (fictitious) documentary starts with a clip from a (just as ficticious) classroom film with a goony, greasy-haired social studies teacher explaining the historical value of slaves as property to a woodenly enthusiastic young boy ("a young prime field hand would sell for as much as a luxury car today!"); the filmmakers sneak in some real-world historical knowledge here by pointing out that slaves were the largest investment that the Confederacy had and were worth more, collectively, than any other assets in the country. Which probably surprises some of the audience while watching it; the American history I encountered in school tended to quietly tiptoe around the Confederacy.

The film goes on to tell the story of a Confederate victory through British and French involvement at Gettysburg and the capture of Washington, D.C. A fleeing Abraham Lincoln puts his life in the hands of Harriet Tubman; they're captured in Detroit trying to flee into Canada. Lincoln was disguised in blackface as a way to try and pass unrecognized. His capture is dramatized diegetically in a 1915 D. W. Griffith silent film, The Hunt for Dishonest Abe (adapted from Thomas Dixon's novel The Yankee, according to the silent movie's title card). The silent film features all the cultural and racial sensitivity one could ask for from a victorious Confederacy, which is to say that it will make a 2013 audience member's skin crawl with well-earned revulsion. Save a little queasy anger for the Southern white talking-head in the film, by the way--Rupert Pate's smug, preening, patronizing performance is the very face of the "noble cause", in a world where that cause isn't synonymous with treason and failure.

Then the audience is shown a commercial break for Sambo motor oil and reruns of "Leave it to Beulah", a 50s sitcom featuring a portly black woman as (apparently) the comic-relief slave cook in a white suburban family.

The commercial break over, the documentary goes on to twist real history again, with New York City and Boston winding up on the receiving end of a Sherman's March-style campaign of destruction and the (implicitly praised) war crimes perpetuated by Nathan Bedford Forrest in an attempt to kill black soldiers that were then in rebellion against the Confederacy. A new narrative thread is introduced here, with the addition of Congressman John Ambrose Fauntroy, the head of a multiple-generational dynasty--the Fauntroys become the CSA equivalent of the Kennedys or Bushes. Another historical vignette is illustrated by a vintage RKO film segment that shows a slave (played by a Brit with a stilted, accented attempt at movie-black-guy dialect) convincing President Jefferson Davis that soldiers couldn't force the North to accept slavery, but giving tax breaks for purchasing slaves would have a chance at extending the peculiar institution over the entire nation.

This goes on to work like a charm, with people in the defeated North deciding that money was worth more than principles. Thousands of conscience-stricken Northerners leave the country for Canada, abandoning America and leaving it to embrace the Confederate slavery system.

With the newly united Confederate states wholly embracing slavery, the documentary shifts gears slightly to explain how science and medicine were used to study slaves with an attempt to discover why some of them tried to flee captivity (and no, "because they're human beings who don't wish to be beaten to death on a whim by a sociopath who uses them to make money" isn't what anyone comes up with). A doctor in the 1850s theorizes that a disease called "Drapetomania" afflicts otherwise perfectly submissive and docile slaves, inflaming them with the desire to flee captivity.

It's during the second commercial break that the real point of the movie finally hit me, and I watched the rest of the film in a sort of numbed awe at exactly what the filmmakers were getting away with. In the second faux-commercial break there's a top-notch parody of a Devry Institute type commercial for the Cartwright Institute for the study of Freedom Illnesses first, and then something that blew my fucking mind. A twangy bluegrass song plays over shots of terrified shirtless black men running down an alley and getting thrown to the ground by beefy white guys in windbreakers who point guns at their heads. Sure, in the faked commercial the theme song has the lyrics "Run boy run, we're gonna come and get''cha" instead of "what'cha gonna do when we come for you", and of course the Confederate version of COPS wouldn't have a reggae theme in a million years. The windbreakers and T-shirts on all the arresting officers have "CBI" on the back in huge white letters as well. None of those details matter. What Kevin Wilmott is saying over the whole film is that the Confederate flag is waving over the White House in his made-up timeline, yes, but judging from mass media in America as we're living in it now, it might as well have been up there the entire time in our world as well.

29 minutes into the film and I finally figured out what the movie was actually about.

The rest of the movie exists on two layers at the same time; on the one hand the viewer can watch as real historical clips are recontextualized to make up a false Confederate history spanning a century and a half. On the other hand, the filmmakers are using the fiction of a brutalistic slave-owning regime to comment on things that were actually done in America; there's a segment on native Americans being sent to institutional schools to destroy their connection to their own existing culture and teach them to think and act more like white people. It's appalling to consider anyone doing it, but the viewer, watching the film's depiction of historical atrocities, suddenly is forced to confront the fact that real Americans set this system up and it's just as cruel and evil as anything the false Confederate history can provide.

The movie continues on, building a history of twisted historical horrors decade by decade in one narrative thread, and showing the rise of the Fauntroy dynasty in another. Further world-building occurs in each commercial break, with Sambo's restaurant (a real chain that I had breakfast at when I was six years old, I'm infinitely sad to say) and the like rubbing up against The Shackle!, a chintzy looking device meant to zap slaves who try to run from their owners. Watching the movie for the first time, I recommend trying to keep a mental tally of which products were made up for the film and which ones actually existed. The end credits, incidentally, will show which ones go in which category.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough, especially to anyone with an interest in film studies, mass communications, 20th century pop culture and history or anyone who is just fucking fed up with people like Ted Nugent getting a megaphone to talk about race in the 21st century when their views are straight out of the 19th. At best. The filmmakers worked for seven years, shooting bit by bit and arranging the footage and voiceovers for maximum impact. The only thing they lacked was money; their drive, talent, dedication and skill are apparent from the first frame to the last.


  1. Watching CSA is like being rabbit punched alternately in the groin and brain for 90 minutes. It seriously should be required viewing.

  2. It's such a devastating critique of the American mass-media landscape. And it's so deftly done--as a clueless and privilege-bearing white dude, it took an outsider perspective to clue me in to what was going on every second of the day but I never happened to notice. And this review was the most-read one that I wrote until some Russian spambot fell in love with "Shriek of the Mutilated", so it would appear that other people find it interesting and necessary too.

  3. I actually saw this film in the theater. Not long after I god a DVD copy for myself. I've long had an interest in history, so I recognized a lot of the "fictional" events and products they brought up. I also remember showing this movie to my baby-boomer parents, and them telling me afterwards that they remember a lot of it from their childhoods.

    1. I missed it in the theater, unfortunately; I think that would have been quite the mind blow because I would have expected an alternate-history science fiction movie and would have gotten a viciously scathing media satire. I imagine I wouldn't be the only person who walked in expecting Harry Turtledove and getting a face full of bitterly angry humor instead.