A satiric rebuke to the prevailing historical stance that the Civil War was fought not over slavery but, rather, over the more encompassing issue of “states rights,” Kevin Willmott’s C.S.A.: Confederate States of America assumes a faux-documentary guise to posit an alternate American reality in which the South was victorious in the “War of Northern Aggression.” Mimicking Ken Burns’s stylistic hallmarks (weighty narration, voiceover readings of letters and official documents, weathered pictures, newsreel footage, and reenactments), Willmott’s cinematic “what if” scenario offers a window onto a nation wedded to antebellum values, the primary one being the systematic subjugation of an African-American population whose forced servitude comes to define the country throughout Reconstruction (dubbed by one commentator “the American Holocaust”) and World War II (in which the country sided with Hitler).
Presented as a British documentary premiering on American television, Willmott’s “program” is a well-crafted ruse, from its clip of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Hunt for Dishonest Abe (a fictional recounting of a defeated Lincoln’s attempt to escape Southern justice, with Harriet Tubman’s help, by donning blackface) to its deft interweaving of real and phony historical figures and archival materials. Occasionally, such manipulation reveals its phony-baloney seams—most glaringly with an amateurish 1940’s RKO movie about President Jefferson Davis’s struggle to reconcile the post-war North and South—and the director’s reliance on only two primary talking heads eventually lends the film a low-budget chintziness at odds with its generally professional PBS-style façade.
However, in the style of Philip Roth’s dense The Plot Against America, Willmott’s counterfeit textbook lesson exhibits a canny aptitude for using its wealth of make-believe details as a prism for our contemporary culture’s continuing legacy of tense racial inequality. In its depiction of the Confederate States’s Cold War with neighboring Canada (the home of abolitionists and suffragists) and its imperialist endeavors in Mexico and South America, C.S.A. confronts our heritage of race and gender-specific intolerance with a forthrightness and biting, black humor that prevents the proceedings from turning dull or didactic. And with its sterling “commercial breaks”—populated by ads for based-in-fact products like “Niggerhair Cigarettes” and “Darky Toothpaste”—the film also reveals the depressingly thin line between elements of its fantastic setup and authentic American history.
Crucial to the film's appeal is the quality of its image and sound, which apes-for better and for worse-the textures of Ken Burns's documentaries. Video and audio is good throughout, through some of the footage that was treated in post-production with special effects is spotty.
Take your pick between two commentary tracks, one with director Kevin Willmott flying solo, another with Willmott and his producer Rick Cowan. Willmott's solo track is more sobering, focusing by and large on the political dimensions of the Civil War and the many provocations of the film, while the Willmott and Cowan track is lighter, with discussion of the film's politics balanced with anecdotes about its production. Also included on the disc is a series of deleted and extended scenes and a Q&A with Willmott and Cowan.
Kevin Willmott's alternate American history isn't consistently gripping but its contemporary relevance is striking.