Monday, September 04, 2006

Film Review--CSA: The Confederate States of America

What makes good satire? To me, satire is something that pokes holes in social issues in a humorous way. But good satire does that while having its alternative reality make sense. The details matter--they are the difference between a believable story and one taking shortcuts to make its points. Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is perhaps the classic example of a great satire. The story is ridiculous. Except that it's not. The Kevin Willmott film, CSA: The Confederate States of America is certainly a satire. But sadly it falls short of being a really good satire.

CSA has been playing around the country here and there for some time. If you are unfamiliar with it, the movie is a mockumentary about what happens when the South wins the Civil War. I was instantly entranced by this idea. What a brillant idea for a movie! The possibilities are endless. But for this historian, the possibilties for pitfalls are equally endless. Unfortunately, Willmott allows his film to fall into too many potholes.

The basic story is this: The Confederacy wins the Civil War. Lincoln is captured (in blackface according to a "D.W. Grifftih" film no less) on an attempted escape to Canada. Jefferson Davis becomes president. After pillaging northern cities, the Confederacy implements their own Reconstruction by expanding slavery to the North and thus creating a republic of white slaveholders. By the late nineteenth century, the CSA enters into wars of expansion and takes over all of the Americas south of Canada and implements semi-slave labor and segregation. Asians in the West are also placed in slavery. Slavery continues throughout the 20th century, the US takes a stance of neutrality toward the Nazis but does go to war with non-white Japan. The 60s represent a time of anti-slavery terrorist attacks from Canada but after the malaise of that decade, a new generation of pro-slavery leaders arise and leads America on its white supremacist course into the 21st century.

OK--there is a lot of potential here. Some of this the film is really well done. Commercials are interspersed throughout the movie. These, mostly based on historical products that used black caricature are well done and honestly kind of scary, including a West Coast restaurant chain that in real life you entered through the mouth of the Sambo character--good to know the next time some Portland or Seattle resident says that racism is a southern thing. The complicity of most American whites in the creation of the post-Civil War nation based upon white supremacy is made clear. What the Confederates do to American Indians is about the same as what the nation actually did, a very buyable touch. Another nice touch is the use of 19th century pseudo-science to explain the behavior of slaves and racial differences. The new presidential candidate from the most prominent Confederate family could easily be George Allen. All very good.

But the movie misses wildly on most of its historical details and presumptions. I am going to hold myself to just a few specific examples, but there are many more. First, I'm not sure how much Willmott understands some of his Civil War history. The way he has the Confederacy winning is with British and French troops leading the way. In reality, the British and the French did want the Confederacy to become its own nation in order to split the rising power of the US. But that support NEVER would have taken the form of actual military support. Recognizing the Confederacy and some financial assistance would have been the extent of assistance, even with strong Confederate victories. The British public deeply opposed slavery as an institution, limiting the room Palmerston had to lend British support to the Confederacy. Instantly, the movie's historical credibility is undermined.

In addition, the movie has the Confederacy pillaging the North. OK, I guess that could have happened, though I doubt it strongly. But then, the CSA is seen to be this rising industrial power. Where was this industrial power centered? In the North. Had the Confederacy destroyed these factories, the nation would have been economically hampered for decades to come. But in the movie, American history marches forward as if slavery didn't really mean that much to America--it doesn't seem to have affected the nation's march to power, its industrial and military might or its racial makeup.

Plus, when the history gets too tricky for Willmott, he just slips around it. The tumult of Canadian anti-slavery terrorism in the 1960s just ends without any explanation. How the North becomes an integral part of the nation or how it recovers from Confederate plundering remains unanswered. Worst of all perhaps, the CSA takes over Latin America in the early twentieth century. And then it is never mentioned again. Time and again, key parts of the historical story are just dropped after they are useful for the story.

Even race is whitewashed to some extent. I'm not sure if Willmott understands conceptions of whiteness prevalent in the 19th century. He just assumes that white people came together under the flag of whiteness. But what was whiteness at the time? He doesn't take into account the Irish, whose whiteness was seriously questioned at the time, nor the southern and eastern European immigration of the late 19th and early 20th century. Willmott mentions the immigrants coming from Europe but has no insight as to how they might be treated in a Confederate US. Also, he has the Asians on the West Coast be turned into slaves. OK, but then he says they just keep on coming, thinking the good life is in America. So are the Asians just stupid in Willmott's story? Do they not understand what slavery means? Come on. Just weak writing.

Am I nitpicking? Yes and no. I am a historian and details matter a lot to me. But so much of this could have been worked into the story without changing the basic fabric of the film. Take for instance immigration from eastern and southern Europe. It is unlikely that a slave-holding America would have welcomed these people. Even a non-slave holding nation didn't really want them here. So let's say immigration is banned from these countries. Then you say in your World War II section that Adolf Hitler successfully wiped the Jews from the face of the Earth. It's implied that this wouldn't have happened if the CSA had let in Eastern European Jews. A Nazi Germany fighting basically a one-front war against the Soviets probably would have lost anyway but it would have taken much longer. Would the Germans have actually killed every Jew? Probably not, but it is a plausible argument. It works both for American and European history. As is, the movie fails in that respect. There are similar scenarios for all sorts of flaws in the film--from the role of Asians to the development of the economy to foreign policy. But Willmott needed 2 things--a co-screenwriter and a historian or two to hammer him on these details.

Generally, Willmott has a vision of the CSA with slavery but everything else is pretty much the same. America is prosperous, strong, with somewhat modern sexual attitudes (though this is complicated--there are scantily-clad women but no voting for women--could one exist without the other? I have my doubts.). We are the dominant power in the world. But with a southern victory, this wouldn't have happened. The Confederacy rejected industrial capitalism as the center of the region's economy. Had they won, no doubt they would have built some textile mills and other useful machinery for the cotton economy but they had no interest in the kind of massive industrial might that the North had begun to develop even before 1860. No industrial might, no America like it is today. Simple as that.

Here's a far more plausible and interesting story. The Confederacy wins the Civil War. Slavery remains as strong as ever in the South. But the Confederacy doesn't take over the North. Rather, they have some border conflicts over territory and some tensions but over time, say at the end of the 19th century, they become one nation again based on white supremacy. A strong Fugitive Slave Act is passed and most northern whites don't care enough to protest it. Blacks who are already in the North have to prove their residency in order to stay free and are subjugated to a strong form of segregation. The nation then doesn't take over all of Latin America but it does take over some of the Caribbean islands, in the name of order. Slavery doesn't become legal there, but it might as well for the harsh conditions placed upon the local people by their new southern plantation owners. The US then sits out the European side of WWII, as Willmott has them do, but does attack Japan. The Civil Rights movement begins in the North led by local leaders fighting segregation and in the South by anti-slavery activists. These people are brutally murdered and an apartheid-style state results. The US remains a nation based upon strict white supremacy to this day.

The history makes sense and is plausible, if counterfactual. The best parts of the film, from the commercials to the use of pseudo-science to the treatment of Native Americans stays the same. But the satire actually makes sense to someone who knows about American history. I'm not saying I could have made a better film--that would be an absurd claim. But I or any untold number of American historians could have helped with the script.

CSA could have been a classic piece of American satire. It's really not that far away. But it falls painfully short. Yes, it is about slavery and not about American history as a whole. But, as I think Willmott would admit, history and slavery remain intertwined today in America, even with the institution dead for almost 150 years. It is worth seeing and I am glad it was made. But ultimately, I walk away a bit disappointed.