Eye For Film >> Movies >> CSA: The Confederate States Of America (2004) Film Review
'What if?' is the key question asked by virtual history, a speculative discipline which playfully yet plausibly expounds alternative versions of events according to strict historiographical principles.
In our postmodern age, where reality is up for grabs anyway, historians like Niall Ferguson, Robert Cowley and Robert Blumetti have transformed virtual history from an academic parlour game to a popular publishing sensation; but even back in 1931, none other than Winston Churchill wrote a particularly sophisticated essay in the genre entitled If Lee Had Not Won The Battle of Gettysburg, in which he first imagined a counterfactual history where General E. Lee had been victorious at Gettysburg, and then reimagined from that perspective a version of our own 'real' history as it might have been reconstructed by a virtual historian.
Kevin Willmott's CSA: The Confederate States of America plays a similar game, not only because it imagines an America where Lee won at Gettysburg, where the South prevailed in the Civil War, where Adolf Hitler was a friend, where 'abolitionist' Canada was (and is) the 'terrorist' enemy, and where slavery continues even now to be an integral part of the nation's social and economic fabric, but also because the America that Willmott posits is as similar as it is different to the genuine article.
Here, the imagined Confederate States of America represents a satirist's distorted reflection of today's globe-mastering US, as presided over by a god-fearing Southerner with imperialist tendencies and a penchant for warmongering. And like all good history, the film teaches us something about where we have come from and who we are.
CSA purports to be a British-made documentary getting its first controversial airing on US television, and covering the genesis and history of the CSA from a questionably 'foreign' point of view. It combines archive footage (actual and doctored) with faux government information films, spoof dramatisations of events (parodying everything from DW Griffiths silents to patriotic war films to Cold War horror) with commentary from talking heads (chiefly Rupert Pate as a moustachioed Southern male white supremacist, and Evamarii Johnson as a female black Canadian academic) - all of which is occasionally interrupted by mock-up advertisements or newsbreaks.
As a pastiche of different film and media styles, CSA is a minor masterpiece, but it is its content, rather than its form, that packs the real punch. By postulating an America where slavery has never ended, Willmott is able to bypass entirely any civilised veneer of good taste or political correctness and expose with alarming explicitness the brutal racism that forms the historical foundation of his nation's ideologies and dreams.
The film opens with a quotation from George Bernard Shaw: "If you are going to tell people the truth, you'd better make them laugh; otherwise, they'll kill you." In what follows, Willmott suggests that only a minor change in the course of America's past would have been required for the country to have become a tyrannical, Aryan, theocratic monoculture, and that there is every risk of the same happening at any time, if it has not already done so. This is viciously confrontational material - just as well, then, that the filmmaker has taken Shaw's advice and kept things funny.
CSA is at its weakest when its parallel history catches up with more recent events. In particular, a bizarre reference to Clinton's most embarrassing public moment ("my great granddaddy did not have sexual relations with that woman") seems at best a cheap laugh, misfiring through its own gratuitousness. Fortunately, though, the film's finest material is reserved till last, in an incendiary punchline that realigns some of the film's more absurdly offensive fictions (especially the slavery-themed ads) with their true historical context, showing how little there really is to distinguish Willmott's virtual history from our own real one. It is an extraordinary moment, as though someone had grabbed hold of all our cosy preconceptions, and given them a (virtual) whipping - and nobody, not even the most 'liberal' viewer, can leave the cinema feeling entirely unblemished.Reviewed on: 04 Aug 2006