Welcome to the CSA
By Annalee Newitz
I LOVE A good alternative history yarn for the same reason I love science fiction. Both genres analyze present-day trends by projecting them into another reality. That other reality might be the future, or simply a transformed version of the present. In the United States, there are two incredibly popular alternate history scenarios: (1) What if the South had won the Civil War? and (2) What if Germany had won World War II?
C.S.A: The Confederate States of America, a fake British documentary made by Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott, answers both questions. After its limited release in the theaters two years ago, the movie achieved cult status in DVD form, which is really its natural medium. It is fascinating to watch CSA on a television set because the movie is meant to resemble a snippet from an alternate-present TV station, complete with freaky commercials and news breaks, which is airing a "controversial" British documentary about the history of the "CSA."
Blending dark humor with painstakingly researched historical revisionism, Willmott begins the movie with a fake commercial for insurance. The clip looks exactly like something you might see on ABC, including the fact that everyone in it is white. Then the announcer says, "Our insurance protects you and your property," and the camera pans over to a smiling black boy who is clipping a hedge. This is a present day in which slavery still exists.
The British documentary reveals how this came to pass. After the South wins the Civil War with the help of France and England, the president heals the rift between North and South by offering Northerners slaves to help reconstruct the ruined cities of New York and Boston. Deposed President Lincoln flees to Canada, followed by 20,000 abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau.
Shortly thereafter, Chinese laborers in California are also declared slaves. The CSA annexes South America and becomes entrenched in a Cold War with what politicians call Red Canada. Several African nations collude with the United States to maintain the slave trade, and we see "historical footage" of an African leader reassuring his people that only the "inferior tribes" are sold as slaves.
Hitler retains control over Germany when the United States refuses to intervene in World War II, although the U.S. president does say it's too bad the Germans are killing Jews instead of enslaving them.
What's sheer genius about this alternate history is how much of it is drawn from actual United States history. We hear about Native Americans being rounded up and put into orphanages, which actually happened; and the fake commercials advertising things like "Darkie Toothpaste," "Niggerhair Cigarettes" and "Coon Chicken" are all based on real products sold long after the abolition of slavery.
More chilling are ads for antidepressants aimed at controlling slaves and for a TV show based on Cops called Runaway. The message may be heavy-handed, but it nevertheless rings true enough to be thought-provoking: U.S. popular culture is only one degree removed from being the popular culture of a slave-owning nation.
The same goes for U.S. political culture. Historical figures and events in CSA also remain virtually unchanged. John F. Kennedy is elected president and calls for abolition right before being assassinated, and the Watts riots are portrayed as a "slave uprising." Ronald Reagan's presidency heralds a new spike in the slave trade. "Experts" explain how the Internet has helped rejuvenate interest in the science of slave control, and we see clips from the "Slave Shopping Network," where bidders can choose to break up a family or "buy the complete set."
Willmott has said in several interviews that CSA is not about what could be, but what is. He points out that blacks and other people of color may not view the film as an alternate history so much as a reflection of a true history that many whites still can't quite see.
Maybe that accounts for why the film, which received an enthusiastic reception at Sundance in 2004 and critical raves, didn't make it onto DVD until quite recently. Freed from the confines of traditional movie theater distribution, I think this flick will at last find the audience it deserves in online communities, where people can simultaneously watch, discuss and recommend it.
In fact, I can't think of a better movie to share in small pieces on YouTube or MySpace, enticing people to rent or buy it and get the whole story. Its message should be out there, spreading like the world's most virulent anti-racist media virus, infecting the nation one computer screen at a time.
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd whose other favorite alternate history is about what would have happened if Martin Scorsese had directed 'ET.'
Send a letter to the editor about this story.