C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, February 21, 2006.

The year is 2004. A controversial documentary produced by the British Broadcasting Service is airing on network television, completely uncut, for the first time on these shores. The documentary recounts the rise of the Confederate States of America as viewed from the outside, stripped of domestic whitewash.

The story is familiar to any American schoolchild. In 1862, with the War of Northern Aggression in full swing, Confederate President Jefferson Davis dispatches his Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin, across the Atlantic to plead with England and France for military support. By casting the war as an issue of freedom and states’ rights rather than one of slavery, Benjamin manages to sway public opinion in Europe. With British and French troops on their flanks, General Robert E. Lee wins a decisive victory at Gettysburg in July of 1863 and turns the tide of the war.

The Confederate Army eventually seizes Washington, D.C., and Ulysses S. Grant’s surrender to Lee ends the war. Assisted by Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln flees the capital in blackface but is soon captured. “Dishonest Abe” is found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death, but President Davis wisely commutes the sentence, fearing Northern rebellion if Lincoln is executed. Lincoln lives out his long life in Canadian exile, mostly forgotten.

Davis moves to unite and consolidate the new nation by levying a burdensome income tax on Northerners—one that can be waived by the simple purchase of a black slave. And since nothing unites a country like war, the Confederate States soon tests its mettle against Spain in the Caribbean, then marches south to fulfill its Manifest Destiny with the conquest and enslavement of Mexico and Central and South America.

In the 20th century Canada, haven for runaway slave, emerges as America’s great enemy, while African dictators happily collaborate in the subjugation and sale of their own people. Terrorists from the John Brown Underground stage devastating raids south across the “Cotton Curtain,” a 3000-mile-long along the 49th Parallel, leading to racial violence that only unites the whites of America.

But as the C.S. enters a new millennium, schoolchildren can rest easy knowing that their country still stands, in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, for the values of “liberty and justice for all white people.”

Looks so natural you’d swear it was real

C.S.A. is billed as a comedy, but laughs at the screening I attended were few and far between. It’s not it wasn’t funny, but the audience seemed too uncomfortable to really let loose.

As a mockumentary, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is an astonishing film to look at. By combining real historical photographs and movie footage with carefully produced fakes, director Kevin Willmott creates a sense of verisimilitude that is chilling and hard to shake. Viewers are shown paintings of Grant surrendering to Lee, photographs of Frederick Douglass addressing the Canadian Parliament, and, in the movie’s best sequence, scratchy film of an elderly Abraham Lincoln’s final press interview in 1905. Lincoln’s apology for using slavery as a pretext for his attempt to save the Union is haunting, as is his closing declaration, “I am a Negro now.” Scenes from movies of the ’40s and ’50s, exposing the social foibles of the C.S., play more broadly but still have a look appropriate to the period.

Viewed as a work of alternate history, C.S.A. is fascinating and absorbing, if a little less successful. The Confederate subjugation of the North is more than plausible, as is the conquest of South America, based as it is on the real-life plans of some Confederate leaders. Its history of the 20th century is interesting as well, with most of the world’s civil-rights innovations, not to mention the development of rock and roll, taking place in Canada. As divergent as the timeline becomes, though, it seems unlikely that this world’s 1960 would find John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon locked in battle for the presidency—even with the amusing conceit that Nixon is the Democrat and Kennedy the Republican. (The Republicans are Lincoln’s party, after all.)

But the primary function of C.S.A. is not as science fiction per se, but as social satire. By those lights it’s frightening to consider how much the world of the movie resembles our real world, with its Watts riots, its unwinnable wars, and its empty sanctimony.

Perhaps the most pointed element of the movie is its use of fake television commercials between segments of the documentary. The viewer is presented with advertisements for such products as Gold Dust Twins Cleaning Powder, Sambo Axle Grease, Darkie Toothpaste, and Niggerhair Cigarettes, all featuring offensive and discomfiting portrayals of black Americans. These commercials play so far over the top that they almost break the tone of the movie, until a coda reminds us that these were all actual 20th century products—and that Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are still with us.

C.S.A. is a painful reminder that, for all our progress, racism is still very much with us, and quite often invisible to those not targeted by it. If the movie has a flaw, it may be that the situation is already so outrageous that it’s difficult to lampoon effectively.  

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America
Featuring Larry Peterson, Evamarii Johnson and Rupert Pate
Narrated by Charles Frank
Written and Directed by Kevin Willmott
IFC Films
Not rated
Opened February 15th in New York, opens February 24th in selected cities