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Interesting premise marred by poor production
on August 1, 2014
"CSA: The Confederate States of America" is far from the first project to explore the idea of what might have happened had the Confederacy won the American Civil War. Writer/director Kevin Willmott, a film professor at the University of Kansas, presents his film as a British documentary being shown on Confederate television tracing the history of the nation. The turning point for the Confederacy comes when Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, convinces England and France to contribute troops. The Confederacy is triumphant at the Battle of Gettysburg, Grant surrenders to Lee, Jefferson Davis annexes the U.S. and the Confederacy runs roughshod over the Union, destroying New York and Boston. Abraham Lincoln is captured in blackface trying to escape to Canada and watches from his Virginia prison cell window as Harriet Tubman is executed for war crimes (he is eventually pardoned by Davis and is exiled to Montreal, dying in 1905). Davis gets the idea for a tax on northerners that can be avoided if slaves are purchased, and in the ensuing decades the CSA conquers Central and South America, revs up international slave trade with the help of African leaders, enslaves Native Americans and Asians, and supports Hitler during World War Two. In the later part of the twentieth century, however, the CSA is isolated and uncultured, its only ally South Africa. Throughout the film the Fauntroy family--think a Confederate version of the Kennedys--are heavily involved in CSA politics, the current representative being John Ambrose Fauntroy V, a senator and 2002 presidential candidate.
What got people talking about the film are the commercials. Some of them are for products and places that actually existed, like Gold Dust Twins washing powder and Coon Chicken Inn restaurants. Others are just over the top, like the ad for Contrari, a drug to keep slaves cheerful and docile, and a "Cops" take-off called "Runaway" about the "CBI" hunting fugitive slaves. Every single one, though focuses heavily on either poking fun at slaves or controlling them. As can be read on other reviews here, "CSA" repeatedly hammers the idea that slavery was the driving force behind the war. As also can be read, that idea still sparks lively debate one hundred and fifty years later. I will add here that Kevin Willmott is African-American, so it's understandable why he would focus on that.
There were many instances while I was watching the film when it was hard for me to tell if it meant to be a straightforward documentary-style film, or meant to be satire. A lot of the dialogue is forced, particularly in scenes meant to show events happening in real time. Willmott uses a lot of actual footage, a lot altered to reflect a Confederate flag instead of an American one, a "C" photoshopped where a "U" would be in "USA." Sometimes the alterations are clever, sometimes they're glaringly bad. A film like this has to make the viewer suspend disbelief, but unfortunately there are enough stumbles to make that difficult.
"CSA" isn't a bad film. For the most part it's imaginative, with many scenes that will make you think, some that will make you chuckle. But it could have been a lot better with just a little more attention to detail. You probably won't like the film if you believe that the Civil War was fought over states' rights rather than slavery. If you're just interested in alternate history, it's interesting to watch.