CSA: Confederate States of America
by Dave Heaton
The film opens with a slick commercial depicting a "typical" family outside in their yard. A father picks up his son and basks with him in the sun, as the mother looks on and smiles. Meanwhile, a narrator with a perfect announcer's voice talks vaguely about the importance of family. He identifies the producer of the ad as an insurance company and says, "We care about your property." The camera scans over the suburban lawn and, right as the announcer says the word "property," focuses on a black man doing gardening work, who looks up with a toothy grin.
Welcome to the Confederate States of America, as depicted in the film CSA: Confederate States of America. CSA is a faux documentary that imagines how our country's history might have gone if the South had won the Civil War and decided to take over the country. The film, which was filmed and produced in Kansas City, was written and directed by filmmaker/University of Kansas professor Kevin Willmott, whose previous film experiences included directing the film Ninth Street and writing the teleplay for the TV miniseries The 70's. A "rough cut" of CSA made its debut in Kansas City at the Rio Theatre on June 24, 2001, as part of the Halfway to Hollywood Film Festival. That version (which had two additional showings later in the week because the premiere sold out) looked mostly finished, despite some sound and editing that obviously needed work. Willmott told the Kansas City Star that there were some scenes that needed to be reshot as well.
In the history depicted in CSA, Grant surrendered to Lee at Appomattox, instead of the other way around, after the South received support from the British and the French which helped them win the war. Abraham Lincoln, who was considered an enemy by the new leaders of the country, fled to Canada with the help of Harriet Tubman. The film starts there, with the end of the Civil War (or, as it is called in the film, "The War Against Northern Aggression"), and plays out history from there until the present day, where slavery still exists. The film goes through many of the major issues and events from then until now, including everything from the world wars, women's suffrage and our country's foreign policy to the Olympics and rock and roll, and illustrates how they might have taken place.
This history is presented in the form of a History Channel-style documentary, relying mainly on interviews and still photos from the past. Though there's the inevitable interviews with ancestors of historical figures, the majority of the interviews are with two experts, one reflecting the dominant view of society at the time, the other presenting more of a critical view--the latter is a professor from Canada, a country which takes on many of the more liberal aspects of our country that can't flourish in the CSA. Both of the experts are depicted in a realistically academic way; it'd be easy to make them cartoonish, especially the more mainstream of the two, but they're not. Really, there's little about the film that's cartoonish or seems far-fetched in the context of the film, which is a stunning achievement considering the territory, and one of the things that makes the film so powerful.
The film gives a pretty comprehensive history of our country, but everything's been warped, twisted due to the different outcome of one significant event. The stories of numerous historical figures are given, including Frederick Douglass, FDR, JFK, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. There is also a fictional political family, one spanning generations of politicians, which is convincingly blended in to illustrate points about power, hypocrisy and more.
At the showing, Willmott gave few opening remarks, except to stress that the film is truth, not fiction. It seemed like a mysterious thing for him to say before I saw the film, but afterwards it seemed like the perfect thing to say. CSA does not just imagine a possible future. In taking what really happened and twisting it, it says as much about what really happened as it does about what could have happened. Much of U.S. history remains in the film.. Everything has gone a different way, obviously. The history in the film is like a parallel, bizarro version of our history, but it's close enough to make you think seriously about the US as you watch the imagined history of the CS.
A series of faux TV commercials interspersed throughout the film add even more modern-day relevance to CSA. These commercials comment on what's going on today as much as they do on the past. There are television shows that have remarkably mean racial stereotypes as main characters yet still don't seem that different from some of what's on today. There's a commercial for a Cops-like show about capturing runaway slaves. All of the commercials are done in note-perfect form, looking and sounding just like what you might find on TV now. The film also includes clips from some of CSA's more famous works of film. These are another way that Willmott is commenting on our own past, in this case our own artistic works and what they say about us. There's a replica of Gone With the Wind in which the North is glamorized instead of the South, an imitation D.W. Griffith film called The Hunt for Dishonest Abe and more.
By touching on so many events in American history, including not only political shifts, military involvement and social shifts but also arts, culture and consumerism, CSA is a deep text, rich with ideas and commentaries. It's a film that won't just make you think about possible histories, but will make you deeply ponder our actual history and what's going on in the present. It's a film that makes you deal not just with the horrible truth of slavery, but with so many other facts about the United States that people are far too willing to ignore or try to dream away.
While it will likely be a while before CSA is officially released, and when it is released it is quite unlikely that it will be showing at your neighborhood multiplex (as it deserves to be), I hope that at some point it manages to get enough distribution to allow people to see it. This is not only a complex film that touches on many important subjects, it is also a highly entertaining, at times hilarious film, one that everyone needs to see.