The United States of America
Children: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Confederate States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all white people, Amen.
I find that one of the hardest things to write about, at least in the format of a review, is comedy. After all, different people have different perspectives on what works in terms of humor. So how do I acknowledge a great comedy without isolating its potential audience? Well, probably the best way is to limit myself to three descriptive categories: premise, execution, and individual examples of humor. For instance, let me describe a scene from the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. It shows a bunch of cowboys driving some doggies in front of a classical American Western landscape. Patriotic music is playing, wild horses are galloping, and cowboys wearily ride into the frame. Suddenly, a narrator speaks, “It’s a time when horses come down from the high pasture, and a man prepares for another tough winter. It’s time…for a Niggerhair: An American cigarette.” Now, I wonder how many of you laughed at that image and how many of you got offended. Now, I wonder how many of you would change your reactions to this scene if I told you that it is a fake commercial in a fake documentary about the history of the United States if the Confederacy won the Civil War?
I imagine that some of you instantly found it funnier with the added context. Of course, others will probably be even more offended. But that’s the nature of comedy. So in describing this movie, I will try to limit myself to why it works instead of how it works. It works because it takes a relatively simple concept, a distorted time-line, and runs with it to an extreme. It doesn’t just predict the future, it extrapolates it. No matter how ludicrous things may become, there is always a little nagging feeling in our minds that make us feel like it could really happen.
So how does the Confederacy win the Civil War? Well, because they get France and England to support their cause. In reality, this isn’t very far-fetched. The only reason why France and England eventually supported the North was because of their military victories late in the war. So, we are given a historically plausible reason for why the South would win. But, what next? Well, this is where the fun starts. Instead of just skipping ahead to the 20th Century, we are given a retrospective on post-war American history. How does the South deal with Northern abolitionists? By passing an outrageous tax on Northerners that can be voided with the purchase of one piece of human “chattel.” Where do all the abolitionists and freed slaves go? To Canada. What happens to America after they have been reconstructed? They invade Mexico and South America in order to expand the American Empire. What about the Stock Market crash? They reinstate the slave trade, driving stocks up and replenishing the economy. See a pattern here?
Kevin Willmott, a film professor from the University of Kansas, has done a remarkable job creating a compelling documentary. There are fake historians called in to explain important events in American history. It’s important to mention that C.S.A. is meant to be a British documentary within the film. How else could such controversial topics be so readily explored? After all, dissent has never been very appreciated in post-War America. All religious groups with the exceptions of Christians, Catholics (as the narrator points out was only accepted as “Christian” after a lengthy debate), and Jews (for their contributions during the Civil War) are outlawed. Abolitionist literature is banned. You are either with the Confederacy, or against it.
Scattered throughout the film are scenes from fake movies that have supposedly come out during this alternate time-line. One of the best is a silent film “directed” by D.W. Griffith about the capture of Abraham Lincoln after the surrender of the North. Willmott should receive major credit for perfectly mimicking so many different styles of film making. Even the period acting is dead on: exaggerated during the silent era, melodramatic in the 40s, and bolder in the 50s and 60s. Even his stab at the horror genre with I Married an Abolitionist works perfectly.
The film is broken up into several sections, each divided by commercial breaks. A majority of the humor comes from these commercials. Often, we laugh at the sheer audacity of some of the advertised products, like the aforementioned Niggerhair tobacco or Sambo motor oil. The mascots are frequently actors in blackface or real “chattel” who go around with a smiling face. But there are more to these commercials than sheer shock value. After the documentary proper is finished, we are told that a majority of the products advertised in the film are based off real life products. Even Niggerhair cigarettes were real. In fact, it was only recently that they changed the name. This brings up what is probably this film’s greatest strength: underneath all of the humor is a constant undertone of dead seriousness.
Allow me to explain. One of the many “experts” who are brought in is an old man. He talks about the wars in South America and beyond. And yet, he seems to be enjoying these stories. Even when the Americans were getting whipped in South America he seems to be getting great pleasure from them. And then, he smiles and says it: “It taught them to stay in their place.” And then, it becomes clear as day. For a nation to condone slavery for two and a half hundred years, it would have to condone racism, too. The belief that all men are NOT created equal would have to be prevalent. And that is when the film really begins to shine. It doesn’t just make you laugh; it makes you feel sick to your stomach by the reality that this is who we could have become. When we hear that in this alternative reality Abraham Lincoln is a convicted war criminal exiled to Canada, we gasp. When we discover that with the influx of black immigrants into Canada caused them to give birth to rock and roll and win more gold medals in the Olympics, we are startled by our indignation. Those are OUR accomplishments.
You see, Willmott has created something more than just a funny documentary. He has created a testament to black accomplishments in America. I remember watching it and thinking, “Thank God that this isn’t true. Thank God that we ended slavery. Thank God that we became the nation we did.” It makes the audience more thankful for the mixing pot that America has become. More than a cautionary warning, C.S.A. is a celebration. A celebration of freedom. A celebration of free speech. And a celebration of how far we as a nation have come, and how close we came to missing it altogether.