This faux documentary about what might have happened if the South had won the Civil War falls somewhere between Ken Burns on Haterade and a joke that goes on far too long.
Filmmaker Kevin Willmott—who wrote, directed and even acted in this thing—intends to force us to acknowledge the guilt we should feel about our country’s heritage of slavery by shoving it directly into our filthy white faces. This is certainly an admirable and possibly achievable goal, but regrettably, Willmott takes it one step further: He wants us to laugh about it, too.
The initial premise of C.S.A. is promising. Willmott presents the film as a generic British documentary, which narrates the story of an America that could have existed if a few Civil War battles had ended differently. Throughout this painstakingly detailed program, Willmott has thrown in commercials and newsbreaks. It looks like something you might end up watching on the History Channel on a typical, boring Sunday afternoon—except this all takes place in an alternate reality, where the Confederacy has prevailed. So the commercials are for things like the Slave Shopping Network, Darkie toothpaste, Coon Chicken and Niggerhair Tobacco.
Are you laughing yet?
Right off the bat, Willmott’s sense of humor will remind you of that guy who lurks by the water cooler, the one who’s bent on telling you the last six Bush/Cheney jokes he got from Air America or—even worse—Ted Rall. Willmott’s satirical attack is one-dimensional, and his obsessive delivery exudes a sense of uncomfortable desperation.
Even if his commercials were funny, it still might be difficult to get into a laughing mood when you see your country invading South America or advising the Nazis to enslave the Jews rather than kill them. It doesn’t help that the acting is terrible, and you keep seeing the same four or five faces again and again in vignettes that all have the same low-quality videotape look to them. When the film asks you to believe that you’re watching, for instance, a horror movie from the 1950s called I Married an Abolitionist, it’s too fake-looking to actually freak you out, and too lamely executed to be funny.
By the end, Willmott has ditched the attempts at humor and brings the film, crashing and burning, back into the real world, revealing that most of the products and the crazy racist imperialist ideas all actually existed at one time or another. But most people already knew that anyway. The way he brings up Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben only serves to belabor the obvious.
Baffled by the conundrum this film put me in—I believed in its message, yet I was strongly repelled by it at the same time—I decided to call up the director. Willmott is a genial man, whose voice carries a trace of a Southern lilt (although he hails from Kansas, not the South). I asked him: Had he intended to make his audience laugh? Did it bother him that I didn’t find it funny?
“No, not at all,” he said, completely nonplussed. “It’s all true, in one form or another. You’re walking a real tightrope, because there’s nothing funny about slavery. And at the same time, when you are doing satire, you have to not make jokes, but there are some things that are so absurd, they’re funny. So hopefully, the humor comes from how crazy it is and how absurd American history is at times. That reaction you are describing is fairly typical. The film challenges you to deal with the kind of things that most films don’t tell you about, because they want you to be comfortable.”
Over the next half-hour, we discussed the Republicans, Katrina, the Confederate flag as a negative image. It became clear that Willmott ultimately believes that conservatives are moving strongly in a racist, repressive direction, and that the Civil War is still being fought on a daily basis.
Finally, it all made sense—now I understood why I’d experienced such a strange feeling of disquiet while watching the movie; and I also understood why audiences at the Coolidge Corner Theatre have been jeering at the previews. This film pushes the limits of what’s entertaining, because this is not art; this is war. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is nothing less than a flaming Molotov cocktail aimed toward the Southern side of the Mason-Dixon line.