03 March 2006

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

confederate states of america

starring: Larry Peterson, Evamarii Johnson, Rupert Pate, and documentary subjects
written and directed by: Kevin Willmott
NR, 89 min, 2006, USA

Alternate histories seem to be in vogue these days, so as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement, an alternate history of the Confederate South serves as a logical union. That is, a "what if" film describing the last century and a half after the Confederate victory in the "War of Northern Aggression"[1] is a perfectly natural, if not inevitable, project. Ergo, we have Kevin Willmott's C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, a fictional film presented by Spike Lee that masquerades as a British documentary exploring the history of the Confederate States of America through interviews and archival footage, complete with commercial breaks as the documentary is aired by channel 6 in San Francisco.

This bizarro universe begins with the British and French joining the South in an overwhelming victory at Gettysburg that leads to Confederate forces taking over Washington, sending President Lincoln into hiding, where he employs Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad for Canada. But before he can get there he's captured, in blackface, by the military. Thus, "Dishonest" Abe was convicted of war crimes, eventually pardoned by Jefferson Davis, and exiled to Canada, where he was largely forgotten by history. This, American History scholars will tell you, is not all that outrageous of a scenario, as British and French forces had considered coming to the South's aid, which may have changed history.

Over the course of the film, Willmott crafts his alternate history by primarily tweaking the existing history. So, instead of fighting the Nazi's in World War II, we have a kinship with Adolf Hitler, who's Aryan race is no longer seen as a major threat. Therefore, the Cold War is not in Europe with the Communists, but against Canada and their support of abolitionists. JFK is still assassinated, but for his desire to carry on the work of Lincoln and not for whatever reasons Oliver Stone may conjure. Willmott wisely declines to take any major leaps into the great unknown of pure fantasy, instead grounding his story in a reality we can recognize, even employing phrasing used by Clinton for effect. His history is only a few degrees different from our own, and I suppose that's the point: to show us just how close we came to this reality, but effectively that's also the film's primary failure. At no time does Willmott ever attempt to correlate his history with our own, and in doing so he lets us off the hook. Few intelligent people actually support the institution of slavery, so showing us it's modern day incarnation does little more than remind us how thankful we are that our forefathers got rid of it.

But while the film may fail as a social commentary, it is a resounding success as a comedy as it spoofs history, segregation, Hollywood films, and the entire "Ken Burns technique". From the choice to concentrate all the Jews on Long Island, to the Confederate decision to invade South America, Willmont goes for a maximum comedic effect. It is easily the funniest thing I've seen so far this year. The problem is that in playing the comedy card, he loses focus of his historical timeline, littering the film with errors that a more experienced filmmaker would have avoided.[2] Generally speaking, though, the archival footage works, and the historical timeline is a reasonable approximation of what could have happened. It is clearly funnier than it is insightful, and if I seem to harp on that point, it may be that I expected more than the film was attempting to provide. All in all, it provides a highly entertaining 84 minutes, and you can't really ask for much more than that.

[1] Just to be clear, we're talking about the Civil War, which the North won. This should be obvious, but American History isn't everyone's favorite subject.

[2] There is, for example, "rare film footage" of an interview Lincoln did during his exile, in 1905. This would make Lincoln an astounding 96 years old and the ability to record sound along with film very rare.


Rachel said...

...i guess i shouldn't be surprised that you know about this film... Kevin Willmott is a film prof. here at the University of kansas (home of the jayhawks for you basketball fans). The film used all local kansas city actors and such...its the talk of the town out here...

very cool

lucas said...

well, what else are people gonna talk about in kansas?