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CSA: The Confederate States of America

IFC Films // Unrated // August 8, 2006
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted September 9, 2006 | E-mail the Author
What if the South had won the Civil War? Written and directed by Kevin Wilmott, presented by IFC Films and Spike Lee, the focus of this film is not to merely ask that question. It treats it as bona fide American history and runs with the ball from there- looking at the ensuing 140 years after a Confederate victory using contrived commentators, considerably altered historical references, sly sensationalist commercials and actual news footage from America's past.

While the premise with which the end is met here is a bit sketchy and doubtful, the mockumentary takes the position that the South managed to woo both England and France to come in on the side of the Confederacy, something that the Union was indeed more than a little fearful of during the Civil War. Were it not for the staunch stance of Europe and indeed most of the civilized world's abhorrence of slavery this likely would have happened; indeed, there was a feeling at the time that it might come to be anyway should the South win another victory or two. Imagine a Battle of Gettysburg with three nations against the Union army on that Pennsylvania field and suddenly what was a whale of a fight becomes the Confederate routing of Northern Union troops. Though most scholars speculate that emancipation was inevitable regardless of the Civil War's outcome, what this film does is remind the viewer that it isn't necessarily so; nations have embraced many sideways ideals and causes before and since and done so in defiance of what most would term to be moral or reasonable.

Humorous, unsettling and more than a little ugly, the sketches and overall depiction of a Rebel governed United States- indeed, a Confederate states with the North brought in by sweeping annexation- are more often than not realistic and could easily have been accurate had events gone as proposed here. Pictures of Iwo Jima and a rebel flag being hoisted by WWII Americans, as well as planting those stars and bars on the surface of the moon. Lincoln not only on the run from Southern authorities, but forced to do so by using the underground railroad, cloaked in blackface and accompanied by Harriet Beecher Stowe. She is summarily executed when captured; Lincoln is convicted of war crimes and held in a military prison for two years, then pardoned and exiled to Canada. Indeed, had Lincoln lost the war it is likely he would have been vilified for generations to come. Jefferson Davis moves the Confederate capital to Washington and the White House. "Dixie" becomes our national anthem. A Northern reconstruction plan effectively advocates the reimplementation of slavery to the Union states in the form of a Northern only income tax, avoidable should a household own at least one slave. Shakespearean actors in blackface.

There have long been what is these days termed 'alternate history' novels, and almost certainly the most proliferate subject has been the American Civil War and more precisely, what would have been the result had the South been victorious? Unfortunately for a history buff like myself almost nothing has been brought to film on the subject, even though there are any number of worthy writings with which to do so. Harry Turtledove alone has produced reams on the subject, keeping the North and South as separate entities leading right up to the present day. Until some studio manages to take on the rather controversial subject, pieces such as this one give the viewer some insight into what could have been and in the case of the Civil War, could easily have been had world politics not been what they were at the time.

The filmmakers of CSA employs a number of sideways scenarios here in their depiction of a CSA with a different history for the last 100 plus years. When watching this mockumentary the viewer is likely to squirm from time to time, and that is exactly what the creators strive to do. Of course, any country that has no problem keeping slavery in place into the 20th century has no problem with tossing the Jews out of America, nor declaring Chinese immigrants building the railroads out West as American slaves rather than simply cheap labor.

Ranging from callous to dry to bawdy, it invites controversy with the ways in which it keeps returning to a glaring indifference, a political incorrectness that is likely to raise the ire of more than a few viewers. Example? One commercial here is for Darky Toothpaste......for a shine that's jigaboo bright! At times this is venomous Monty Python, others Ken Burns epic, all the while taking on the look and feel a Spike Lee Joint. It seems as if there are so many roads on which the premise could be taken, yet over the span of a mere 90 minutes the director Wilmott tries to take them all. That isn't a bad idea; in fact, it works very well here, moving quickly with breaks for dark, satirical commercials ("Coon Chicken Inn" replaces the fare the Colonel has been selling us for years) and that is one of the less offensive spots. Documentary footage on an ever expanding Southern reign gives history lessons on what is essentially a completely different WWI, one hard fought against South America in order to further Confederate world domination and enslave any man whose skin isn't white. The Wall Street crash here has other ideas on recovery- slave export becomes America's ace in the hole.

Politicians extroll on the virtues of modern day slavery, in much the manner as they did 150 years ago, with a vehemently anti-abolitionist Fontroy clan taking the place of the Kennedys as the royal family over the course of many generations. When we get to WWII is when things get even creepier.....would an anti-Semitic America really have a problem with Hitler's policy towards European Jews? In fact Der Fuhrer is taken on tours of Southern plantations. Why the useless slaughter of so much humanity, when it can made far better use of as Reich livestock? War here is America against Japan simply because of color- the CSA strikes Japanese harbors on December 7, 1941, fighting a cruel war until the atomic bomb is created.....the "ultimate instrument with which to put people of color in their place".

The fifties? The advent of the "Cotton Curtain" and a political hunt for "Abbies", Abolitionists who might be your own neighbor! The sixties brings freedom advocate John F. Kennedy, his renewed call for Emancipation and that inevitable assassination in 1963 as a result. The Clinton parallels are here as well, in the form of an investigation into a Fortnoy family member being a closet mulatto. The internet? Online slave sales are only surpassed by- what else? Porn! The documentary doesn't stop at color lines, either- this is an America in which women still don't have the vote! I feel that I've only touched on the dozens of obvious historic changes made throughout; others are far more subtle and will take some research in order for the viewer to appreciate just how much thought and historical research was implemented in creating this film.


Aspect ratio here is 1.33:1 fullscreen. As with 'real' documentaries, some portions of the footage looks better than others. Sharpness is adequate, if a bit on the soft side. Colors appear to be well represented.


Audio track here is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Clear and easy to understand, it is fine for documentary purposes.


Commentary With Director Kevin Wilmott and Producer Rick Cowan- Running the length of the film both speak in length on their reasonings for making many of the decisions they did in making the film; if you like the movie this is well worth checking out.
Reality Of The Fiction- Commentary with Director Kevin Wilmott- A second commentary by Wilmott alone, digging deep into his reasoning for changing dozens of historic facts in order to plausibly film his altered, "reverse" history. Again, both commentaries are worth a listen, but this one will be particularly fascinating to history and "what if" buffs.
Deleted Scenes- About 13 minutes of outtakes from the film, most of which are simply variations on what was used with the exception of a few, such as a promotional spot for the "Confederate States Air Force".
Making of CSA with Filmmakers- Clocking in at 10 minutes, Wilmott and crew talk about pertinent points they want the viewer to "get" when watching the movie, how they see the realities of their film in the context of the USA in modern day life.

Final Thoughts-

Apt comparisons have been made between this film and Lee's "Bamboozled"- this is barely concealed satire, chilling in its tongue in cheek matter-of-factness; at times one can easily liken what passes as Southern logic here to the offerings any extremist group might produce. As would be the case with any Lee project, the viewer is compelled to look beyond the surface at just how scathingly accurate this mockumentary often is. This really is a gem of a film, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners. Both history and alternate history buffs will find much of the material fascinating, if at times heavy handed and a bit preachy; casual viewers will be taken to school in more ways than one. You're going to be entertained, but its going to cost you- you're also likely to be educated regardless of whether or not you agree with the filmmakers' vision. This is a well executed, dark satire that invites repeated viewings in order for the viewer to grasp just how many angles director/writer Wilmott is coming from. Highly recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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