Starring: Larry Peterson, Evamarii Johnson, Rupert Pate
Written and directed: Kevin Willmott
Studio: IFC Films
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: PCM Stereo (English)
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Commentary with Director Kevin Willmott and Producer Rick Cowan, “Reality of the Fiction,” Commentary with Kevin Willmott, Deleted Scenes, Making of CSA featurette with Filmmakers
Length: 89 minutes
Mockumentaries have gained a lot of popularity in the past several years. Christopher Guest is one of the leading proponents of this movie form, with excellent examples like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. But where Guest’s films primarily use satire for mostly comedic effect, the satire found in CSA: The Confederate States of America is more political and social in nature, and the comedy is for the most part too painful and too true to be really funny. Writer and director Kevin Willmott has fashioned a mirror from the subject of racism, and in CSA, he is holding that mirror up to the faces of the American people, in much the same way that Jonathan Swift did when wrote “A Modest Proposal” to satirize and bring attention to the way that the British were treating the Irish. Like “A Modest Proposal,” CSA is shocking and extreme in its pronouncements, and just as impossible to discount.
The premise of the film is: what if the South had won the Civil War and slavery was never abolished? The structure of the film is a Ken Burns-styled documentary produced by the fictitious British Broadcasting Service, and presented as if it were shown on commercial television, complete with commercials and ads. This faux-documentary highlights the history of the Confederate States of America since the Civil War, or as it is known in this film, the War of Northern Aggression (which is how some Southerners actually refer to the Civil War today). CSA is an alternate history of what could have happened to our country. We didn’t enter World War II, for instance, because we approved of Hitler’s handling of racial issues in his own country. And we did invade and annex most of Central and South America to established our own empire. What happens to Abraham Lincoln in this film (although he wasn’t assassinated and he didn’t disguise himself in blackface in an effort to escape) mirrors what actually happened to Jefferson Davis, who was the president of the real Confederacy.
The “commercials” in CSA offer some of the sharpest and most uncomfortable satire. Keep in mind that successful political satire should be uncomfortable. The commercials feature products like “Sambo Motor Oil,” “Niggerhair Cigarettes,” and “The Shackle.” One commercial was for “Runaway,” CSA’s version of the television show, “Cops.” Every episode features agents from the Confederate Bureau of Investigation hunting down and capturing runaway slaves. Except that the white law enforcement personnel arresting and brutalizing African Americans looks just like the actual television show. There isn’t any significant difference. And that’s the point of this mockumentary. Racism and the remnants of slavery are still with us.
Much of this film isn’t so much funny as it is cringe-inducing. Don’t get me wrong, there are several laugh-out-loud segments, but what stays with you are the portions that are just too painful, because there is too much truth and horror in them. As director Kevin Willmott says in the commentary, this film isn’t only about the South and their attitudes, it is about the United States. The issue of race is a problem and a challenge for the entire country, and this film highlights many of those issues. At the end of the film, the audience learns that many of the offensive products featured in the faux-commercials are actually real products that existed well into the 20th Century and a few are still around today. Some of the segments are uneven in quality (some look low-budget and unprofessional), but the message and intent of the film is first-rate. Every American should see CSA.
— Hermon Joyner