Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, February 27, 2021

dixie moon
Last night I got to catch CSA: Confederate States of America. It was being screened as part of Eckerd College’s Environmental Film Festival (an odd fit for this flick, but no quibbles here); always good to visit the old alma mater. The EC show was the Florida premiere for the movie, which has signed on Spike Lee and IFC Films ahead of a Summer 2005 nationwide arthouse release.

This is my second viewing of CSA. I first got to see it a couple of years ago, shortly after its Sundance premiere. My brother got his hands on a review tape, and, knowing my enthusiasm for alternate history/reality fiction, sent it on to me. That tape’s video and audio quality was fairly poor; it was watchable, but just barely so. But I liked what I saw, overall, and I was happy to get the chance to see a clean copy, on the big screen, and (presumably) improved from a storytelling aspect.

You can get a synopsis of the plot from the official movie site, but briefly: The movie is presented as a televised “fake documentary” (in the words of director Kevin Willmott) or mockumentary, set in an alternate reality where the South won the Civil War, slavery persists into the present day and is the foundation of American sociopolitical life. A secondary plot revolves around a political scion’s rise to Presidential contention, while carrying a potentially earth-shattering secret.

The highlight of the film is the insertion of fictional commercials into the film (remembering that this is being presented as a televised documentary). These spots are reminiscent of our “real world” commercials, but twisted to show the predominance of racist mindsets in a triumphant Confederacy. I particularly liked the spot for a TV show in this world called “Runaway”, a “Cops”-style production where runaway slave hunts are broadcast for public entertainment (appealing to the same base impulses that makes “Cops” so popular).

There are two ways to take in CSA: As strict historical fiction, and as social satire. On the first count, it probably misses more than it hits. On the second, it’s quite effective (and really, is the basis upon which it will judged).

Like I mentioned, I’m a fan of alternate history. I find it both entertaining and intellectually challenging: I like puzzle posed by divergences in history caused by, for instance, whether or not the Schlieffen Plan would have worked had the Germans adhered to it in 1914. The Civil War has been fertile ground for this fiction subgenre, going back to Winston Churchill’s essay “If Lee had not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”, and before. So I’ve read a lot in this sphere.

My overwhelming preference for these divergence scenarios is plausibility: Once the theory that the historical actor decided to take a left turn instead of the factual right, that all consequent events flow from there in as likely a manner as possible. Thus, in the case of a Southern victory in the Civil War, Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson does not grow up to become President of the United States, but rather more likely becomes President in Richmond of the Confederate States (if he goes into politics at all).

In the interests of presenting CSA’s fictional world as a dark mirror to our reality, Willmott makes a lot of reaches in the development of American and world history in this alternate timeline. The chief one: That a Confederate victory led to a reunited North and South under the Dixie flag. This is probably my least-favorite alternate history outcome, simply because it’s practically impossible (the primary reason the South seceded was to disassociate from the North completely, echoed in Jefferson Davis’ famous proclamation “to be left alone”).

A lot of interesting scenarios are detailed stemming from that, some plausible, some not; but looking at it as an alternate history purist, the faultiness of the foundational premise makes it harder to accept. In my opinion, putting forth a scenario where an independent CSA, composed of the South, building this nightmarish society in competition with a free-(er) United States at its border would have done as good a job, in a less-simplistic manner. Harry Turtledove’s Great War series is a good template for this sort of treatment (not that Turtledove’s series is without its flaws).

Again, if you approach this movie strictly from the angle of alternate-historical likelihood, you’ll be turned off. That would be a shame, because you’d miss out on the broader insights it gives.

Willmott’s strengths shine with the tone of the movie, which demonstrates how eerily parallel a slave-based society is to modern American life. He manages to do this with a healthy dose of humor: The faux commercials are cheesy only because they monkey the advertising messages we see everyday, for what we think are more benign wares. Somewhat more seriously, the development of a Cold War environment in this world, with a latter-day expatriate abolitionist movement based in Canada as the enemy other, is a great way of looking at the roots of sociopolitical dynamics, and how they work independently of intent.

From a technical standpoint, the movie’s flow is not a completely smooth affair: I felt the editing could have used some work, especially in the early going. The story of the Presidential candidate was also something of an awkward placement, and I half-think it might be a stronger film if that part was removed altogether, or at least strongly underplayed. But it’s got its strengths: The mockumentary format engages the audience like nothing else could, and is probably the most streamlined way of presenting the concept (Willmott’s main inspiration was Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”, down to the dueling historian monologues).

I’m not sure how this movie will play in wide release. Audiences can be quite dense and unsophisticated when presented with storylines like this; even an arthouse crowd will likely have trouble wrapping their minds around it. During the question-and-answer session after the screening, one student mentioned how she felt America was ready for a film like this; I had to keep from audibly guffawing.

I managed to shake hands with Willmott on the way out, and got his email address from him. I pitched the notion of interviewing him here; if successful (assuming I haven’t scared him off with this rambling review), I’ll post.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 02/27/2005 11:42:36 PM
Category: Movies, Society, History
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3 Feedbacks
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