The premise behind "C.S.A." is this: what if the Confederate Army won the Civil War? What if Lincoln was caught in blackface while on the Underground Railroad by Southern soldiers and lived to a ripe old age in Canadian exile? What if America struck Japan first in WWII, and eventually supported Hitler's plans for Europe? What if slavery was an idea that was never abolished? "C.S.A." is a faux documentary in the guise of a BBC television production that has "finally" been able to see the light of day in the Confederate States of America.
Writer/director Kevin Willmott certainly has a fire in his belly with "C.S.A.," mounting a comedic look at life through a distinctively historical/fantastical lens, but gives the picture over almost immediately to effective reminders of just how delicate history can be. As a comedy, this "mockumentary" isn't truly all that funny. Willmott's ideas are razor-sharp, especially anything that involves the massive repression of African-Americans in the C.S.A., but he fails to see anything through to the bigger laugh. Willmott is more content with faint chuckles leading to jaw-dropping horror over some of the "history" presented here, which feels like a missed opportunity for a roaring satire that "C.S.A." had the potential to be.
Structured like a standard historical documentary seen on any cable channel, "C.S.A." assumes these qualities and includes talking head interviews with professors and historical enthusiasts, along with copious amounts of film and photographic footage (we see the building of the "Cotton Curtain," a concrete wall separating the C.S.A. from Canada) to support the wild tales of America's new leadership. Willmott doesn't have the largest budget to work with here, and his ambitious cinematic recreations tend to fail more than they succeed. There's a great sequence in the picture that exposes an early D.W. Griffith film that recreated Lincoln's capture. Here, Wilmott nails the minutiae of silent cinema, but as the years go by, and "C.S.A." attempts to lampoon the melodramas of the 1940s, the technical prowess drops considerably, and the picture soon resembles a particularly ambitious student film, breaking the illusion to even the most casual viewer.
Spread throughout the film are commercial breaks, each one showcasing a bit of racist merchandise, programming, or service. While most are unremarkable, Willmott's take on a "Cops" parody for runaway slaves is truly inspired, along with commercials for electronic slave shackles and toothpaste with a Stepin Fetchit style of mascot. The commercials are mostly outlandish, fiercely satiric material until the end of the film, when Willmott coldly reveals some of the more offensive selections were based on real world items.
As a mix of Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" and the average Dave Chappelle skit, "C.S.A." is an interesting journey through an alternate universe, but it never engulfs the screen in flames quite like the film's early moments imply it will do. Still, Willmott's film is an inventive indie production, and a chilling look at a future America narrowly avoided.
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