Eye For Film >> Movies >> CSA: The Confederate States Of America (2004) Film Review
CSA goes further than most mockumentaries. Rather than humorously exposing an established set up, helmer Kevin Willmott supposes and earnestly creates a whole new scenario to then satirise those taking part and watching.
Styling itself as a British-made documentary being broadcast on American TV, CSA examines how modern-day America developed since its watershed Civil War, only this time the South won. This alternative history sees a Confederate Nation formed, Afro-American slavery legalised and conchy Abe Lincoln unceremoniously dumped as a two-tier society of segregation develops with a passion. A mighty white sense of American identity inflects global politics, with apartheid in Mexico, respect for Hitler's Assyrian ideals and Japan following the US' - I mean, the CS' - lead. More recently, the African nations have signed up to 'Cooperation' policies with America, effectively lucrative deals that profit their pro-capitalist leaders whilst selling the majority directly into CS slavery.
Gamely adhering to its documentary 'genre', an intelligent English narration stitches together archival footage, film and newsreel clips, interviews with key players and academic talking heads as well as some investigative reportage. Although some budget restrictions are clear and a few more varied, credible interviewees would have added to the sense of authenticity, there's just enough gusto to see it through. Indeed, CSA plays deftly upon the fact that simply laying narration over images powerfully coerces you into seeing what you're told to see. Some film and TV 'clips' are choice, too, especially the melodramatic D W Griffiths' I Married An Abolitionist and caricatured Gone With The Wind-esque productions.
It's clear early on that this outlandish concept is a viciously satiric swipe at the US of A's development of itself and its internal and international power and control policies. With this comes regular black humour in the racist ideals that the various bods devoutly espouse, especially the politicians, but there's just as much discomfort. Satire works when its invective is aimed at truths and CSA finds plenty to target in the USA. Amusing as it is, the none too latent parallels the film draws are an inexorable reminder of how uneasily close to reality this fiction is. When some domestic slaves revolt the footage is reminiscent of the LA riots. When abroad, one academic reminds us that 'What is terrorism to one is patriotism to another.'
Most punching are the commercials that regularly punctuate the broadcast. Advertising the likes of Niggerhair cigarettes and Darko cleaning products alongside E-Slave Accounting software and chemical cures for 'draptomania' (an illness that makes slaves run away), the gloves come off to smack you with consistently vitriolic one-twos. While there are almost echoes of Verhoven's aping in Robocop and Starship Troopers, these ads deliver a further knockout blow towards the end.
Signalling that Willmott and producer Spike Lee are aware of this fine line between hector and humour, CSA opens with a pithy sting from George Bernard Shaw: "If you're going to tell people the truth, you'd better make them laugh, or they'll kill you." With its tongue firmly stuck on one side of its mouth whilst intelligent invective essays from the other, CSA just about gets the uneasy balance right. It makes for a considered idiosyncratic slice of anti-establishment commentary. Whether or not this will appeal to everyone is another matter.
On this side of the Atlantic irony and constitutional satire has a long heritage, as does taking a pop at America, so for people who want more of that this has it in spades. For the other side of the pond, though, in the spirit of the film a sweeping generalisation may for once be permissible. American humour can be in the main light on irony and heavy on self-congratulation, so there is a risk that CSA will only preach to the converted, appeal to those who already get it before it's begun. Nevertheless, the second generation Bush administration has ushered in an emboldening of intelligent political satire, both on film and TV, in whose canon CSA certainly has a place, and that's no bad thing. Indeed, it is towards this administration's machinations that the film regularly bares its teeth, and although it was made in 2004 it still seems just as relevant and cutting today - perhaps more so.Reviewed on: 05 Dec 2006