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March 15-21, 2006

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C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Southern Exposure: What if the South won the Civil War? asks Kevin Willmott in his historical satire 'C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America.'

Done In by Dixie

The South rises again in new mockumentary 'C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America'

By Richard von Busack


IN SATIRE, verisimilitude beats attitude: the mirror is more important than the hammer. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is University of Kansas film professor Kevin Willmott's crypto-documentary—a "What if?" picture about the South's triumph in the Civil War. C.S.A. takes the form of a historical special produced by England's "BBS," being shown domestically and interrupted with TV commercials. According to this alternative history, England and France aided the Confederate triumph. The victorious South spread slavery to the North as "Reconstruction" and took the Peculiar Institution to Latin American plantations.

As the mockumentary tells us, in Canada the great names of abolitionism keep a rear-guard fight going that lasts until our time. The pharmaceutical industry invents tranquilizers to handle the disease of runaway-slave syndrome. Television shopping channels offer slaves for sale, in families or in separate lots. C.S.A. has an idea with some real heft; this is a fantasy that has always captivated us history majors: Would the South have gone bankrupt, slavery being particularly economically inefficient? Wouldn't widespread revolts have kept the C.S.A. in a state of constant war? Would the British Army have fought to uphold the system in the first place? (Unbloody likely, since slavery had been outlawed in the Empire since the 1830s.)

Instead of working out those questions, Willmott creates a few arresting images. Silent footage of Lincoln, his melancholy deepened by age and exile, is chilling. But then Willmott spoils the moment by including Lincoln's modern-style confessional of failure. (The film tends to beat up on Lincoln for his racism. But as Edmund Wilson put it, whatever Lincoln felt about black people, he lost his life ridding the United States of slavery.) Again, the problem is that the film can't pass for real. C.S.A. belongs on the same shelf with knowingly funny '70s hodgepodges like Tunnelvision and The Groove Tube. The TV ads and films that Willmott parodies are the easiest targets, but the director hits them good and hard. As in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, Willmott peoples his work with extinct racist advertising figures like the Gold Dust Twins, Mr. Darkie and the wide-mouthed mascot of the Coon Chicken Inn. The despicable show Cops is lambasted as Runaway, with slave catchers hunting fugitives. When Canada's anti-slavery government throws a 1950s scare into the United States, Hollywood responds with I Married an Abolitionist. (Funny enough, but Hollywood usually addressed the Great Fear with sci-fi allegories. Shouldn't it have been Negroes From Mars?)

C.S.A., presented by Lee, has been compared to Jean-Luc Godard directing a Dave Chappelle script. But those are names to conjure with. Godard is the one and only, and Chappelle is already comfortably in the Top 10 of 2006 with his Block Party, nothing less than a rapturous, generous effort to heal our nation's divisions. By contrast, C.S.A. is a little safer. It is hard to imagine anyone outside of a klavern who would that feel they had seen the roof lifted off an unspeakable subject. But Willmott's point is well taken; this bleak parallel world has all too many points of reference to our own.


Movie Times C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (Unrated; 89 min.), directed and written by Kevin Willmott and photographed by Tim De Paepe opens Friday, March 17.


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