By David D'Arcy
February 10, 2006 - 11:57 AM PST
Imagine the South had won the Civil War. Some would look at their Coca Cola and at their president and at Confederate re-enactors of Civil War battles and conclude that it wouldn't take much imagination. Yet Kevin Willmott has done more than just imagine. He's made a documentary, a mockumentary, about what the United States would be if the Confederacy had triumphed. A lot of it looks familiar.
CSA: The Confederate States of America presents the history of the Confederate States of America as a documentary within a documentary, a British film, long-suppressed, we're told, that chronicles the CSA from victory in the Civil War to the present time. In between sections of the program are advertisements that show daily life in the CSA - slaves for sale, happy slaves, even happier white children, and consumer products like toothpaste that help you laugh at happy stereotypes as you build the CSA economy.
There's a lot of invention here in CSA, which played at Sundance two years ago and opens in New York on Friday, February 10. In Wilmott's version of Confederate history, Lincoln flees to Canada in blackface with Harriet Tubman. The US president, wearing his stovepipe hat, travels in blackface, heeding the advice of his escorts that "we all nigguhs now." Captured and jailed, Lincoln will spend his last days in Canada. Slavery is reintroduced in the North and the economy booms.
Wilmott, an African-American who studied at NYU, has assembled "archival" footage that follows Confederate Manifest Destiny into Mexico, where an apartheid state is established by the CSA. Griffith-style scenes in rusticated period condition follow the CSA through wars and into prosperity, with "experts" analyzing what happened and why. Black "experts" from Canada offer their side of the story from the outside. Sometimes it seems as real as PBS (not that that's so real) - just a lot less earnest. A lot of the smiling black faces in CSA reminded me of the Republican National Convention of 2000.
I'm surprised that this imaginative, funny film has not gotten more attention, given the popularity of the Civil War in mainstream America, and that it has taken so long for CSA to get a theatrical release. It's a twist on Spinal Tap, a jab at the somnolent Ken Burns comfort-doc sensibility and at the smugness of comfortable conventional wisdom that hides uncomfortable truths. Wilmott might want to show it to a room of Southern politicians.
This is also a comedy that doesn't spare anyone as it deploys stereotypes of gentle racism and expert probity to erode their credibility. It will take more than one doc to do that, but Wilmott is off to a good start. CSA should be shown in schools. If they're showing the aftermath of Katrina, this mockumentary can't be all that threatening.
I spoke to Kevin Wilmott during his recent visit to New York.
Among other things, this is a work of satire. Would you call it a mockumentary?
It's a hybrid. I call it a faux documentary. By telling the false history, I wanted to tell the tell history.
History seems to be the lifeblood of Hollywood, but it's not always a history where the facts are accurate.
When it comes to American history, we have an up and down past - many things to be proud of, many things to be ashamed of. People are really hunger for the truth of it all, and you have to tell the story in an entertaining manner. But slavery's the Big One, and oftentimes white audiences will feel guilty and shut down, and black audiences can get upset and mad about it, so nothing moves forward. One of the aims of the films was to tell the whole story, warts and all, in a way that we can start to process it.
What is your film training?
I went to NYU in the writing program there. My first entry to Hollywood was a script that I co-wrote about the abolitionist John Brown, which was bought by 20th Century Fox. Chris Columbus, the Home Alone director, bought it. For a while, Denzel was interested in it, but it was never produced. They couldn't find a John Brown. For about five or six years, I was writing two scripts a year about history. In the course of that, I picked up all sorts of tidbits. CSA was a place to put them.
How did the idea of doing this come to you?
I had been writing for Hollywood for a while, and was kind of getting frustrated. I was starting to think of a new way to tell the story. Slavery is avoided quite often in these Civil War epics. They'll tell a Civil War story, but slavery will not be an integral part of it. I think Glory is the only film, that and Amistad, that tell an Abolitionist story of the war.
Even fifty years after the war itself, you get the mantra that it was all about preserving the Union, and not about slavery.
Exactly. That's a big part of why I made the film. I was certainly taught that it was not about slavery. That's one of the things that still divides us in this country. If you can't accept the role of slavery in American society, then you really can't understand much about America.
One of the examples I like to give is Kansas, where I'm from. I teach at Kansas University, in Lawrence. John Brown was there, and the Civil War really starts there. The town was founded by Abolitionists. After the Civil War, the town becomes segregated. It's not the Mississippi Board of Education, it's the Topeka Kansas Board of Education. The Free State, as we like to call it, because of its opposition to slavery, quickly becomes the segregated state after the Civil War. Those are some of the best examples of how the South did win.
As an idea, it's ambitious. Who was willing to pay to make it into a movie?
We didn't find many people. It took me about three years to make the film. We made it in chunks as money came in. I went to one friend, who was our only real investor, and we got some of our budget from grants. We kind of hustled our way through it. It was a cause in many ways. At KU, we had a sound stage and we had lots of old equipment.
Was anyone offended by the film? What were some of the unusual reactions to it?
Blacks and whites work differently. There are always going to be some black people who are upset that there's not a sense of victory in the film. I made that choice specifically, because one of the problems we have today is that people want to be believe it's over. They see black people on TV, they see a few black people making a lot of money, and they want to believe that you guys are there now. And that's just not true. I think Katrina is the latest example of how that's not true. There's still a huge number of folks who are in a horrible cycle of poverty.
The choices I made in he film come not so much from a "what if?" but from a "what is." The fact that most black leaders were murdered, and the fact that they have found a way of marginalizing others, meant that I didn't want to give that sense of victory. I do think that I gave a sense that we fought back.
Then you have the white reaction, that's ticked off about it. There's a politically correct reaction that's offended by seeing the "commercials." They just can't handle it. We've got to learn how to handle the stereotypes, handle that part of American history that is just so offensive that we want to bury it. We do it in the form of a satire, and I think that's the only way that people outside of the intellectual community would see a film like this. I'm not making fun of slavery and those images, but I'm putting them in a context that would have existed if the CSA had won. And then, of course, I get a lot of email from Confederates who feel that I'm destroying their history.
Have any politicians seen it?
A few in Kansas have, and they've been very supportive. Not many national politicians have, which I would love to see. There are so many resonances with today.
You have the contemporary slaves in the film wearing orange jump suits. Why?
Because after the war, it was about peonage, about sharecropping, and about change gangs. Men and children were arrested in the South and put into chain gangs. Now it's drug crimes, with thousands and thousands of young black men in jail. I wanted to hint at the new slavery, the new way to take people rights away, to keep them in a cycle of poverty.
How broad is the audience for this film?
I made it as a comedy because I want to reach the audience who would never go to see a serious film about slavery. Hollywood assumes they just don't care.
If you look at American politics today, you could argue that the South won the Civil War. We're all drinking Coca Cola. The white evangelicals have another president in power. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans helped show that blacks are often in a second class situation. At the end of the film, you have frames of text showing that the products that use slave stereotypes as logos were sold until recently, and that some, like Uncle Ben's rice or Aunt Jemima pancake mix, are still for sale.
I think it's part of our memory problem. With Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima and Gone with the Wind and Cold Mountain and all of those movies, because slavery is either a positive thing, where all the slaves are happy to be slaves, or it's so remotely portrayed that it's barely dealt with - unfortunately, you've got people who think slavery wasn't a negative.
The memory of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben becomes one of just happy servants, part of the big nostalgia mix. They went back and they cleaned up the images a bit, but they're still Aunt and Uncle. I can't help thinking of what Leonard Pitts said about it, that Gone With the Wind is a romance set in Auschwitz. If that's true, you have to say the same thing about those products. They've done a good job of normalizing it all.
One of the huge problems we have in this country is how we deal with black pain. I think we've become too accustomed to the fact that black people are supposed to suffer, and that's a huge problem. How do you get people to become outraged about black suffering, as in Katrina, when we've seen it for so long, and it's become a normal part of American life.
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"I made it as a comedy because I want to reach the audience who would never go to see a serious film about slavery."
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Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.
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