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

A highly imaginative mockumentary, done in the style of a Ken Burns PBS special, about the last 140 years of American history... if the South had won the Civil War.

Writer-director Kevin Willmott goes all out and includes imaginary slavery-themed TV commercials interrupting the "broadcast", which was ostensibly produced in the UK and is "playing" – with restrictions – on a Confederate TV channel.

While C.S.A. doesn't offer much more than you'd expect from its high concept, it's still full of ideas. Despite the tiny budget, its phony old film clips and commercials have a remarkable authenticity (though you can never get a modern-day actor to realistically look like he's from the 19th century, can you?), and Willmott seamlessly combines his invented material with actual stock footage to concoct a plausible scenario of what the country might be like had the Union lost to the Confederates back in 1864.

For me, though, this was one of those films that was so good it should have been better, if you know what I mean. I can't fault Willmott for focusing entirely on slavery, as that's the story he wanted to tell. But a certain samey-ness creeps in after the fourth or fifth "commercial break", and I began to wish that Willmott took just an extra minute here and there to paint a broader and more detailed portrait of this alternate-universe America. We see that blacks are still held as property, but other major issues like women's rights, foreign policy, and how an isolationist economy would function today are only glibly touched upon.

The result is that, by fixating his story on racism, Willmott posits that the entire culture of the Antebellum South can be defined by its slavery policy. Considering that over 600,000 men died fighting over this policy, Willmott is mostly right. But his thesis plays out as reductive. It dismisses all Southern whites as cartoonish jackasses while letting the more discreetly racist among us off the hook. (The fact that many of the racist products advertised throughout the movie were actually real, such as Darkie Toothpaste and Coon Chicken Inn, reminds us of how long it took to break away from the stereotypes of yore; yet despite Willmott's last-minute footnote that Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben still exist, he doesn't convince us that these two brands authentically reflect current American racism.)

I could keep nitpicking, but as it's said, an artist doesn't provide answers, he asks questions. C.S.A. is one of those films where the conversation afterwards may be more thought-provoking than the film itself. So for that I appreciate it and recommend it.