A faux Ken Burns-style documentary recounting the last 140 years of American history as if the South had won the Civil War, “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” is more intriguing on paper than when it actually unspools onscreen. Kevin Willmott’s small-scaled but ambitious picture is well-researched, sometimes amusing and not unintelligent. Still, the laudably provocative impulse behind the project never busts loose into incendiary or subversive outrageousness due to a combination of historical fastidiousness, lack of stylistic bravado and an ever-growing feeling that the premise is played out well before the finale. After fest play, an enterprising distrib could chalk up some limited mileage theatrically, but most promising markets loom in cable and homevid.
Willmott, an assistant professor at the U. of Kansas who wrote and co-directed the 1999 vid-released feature “Ninth Street,” displays his academic erudition throughout, from the way he deals with grand historical matters to his archival use of actual products like Darky Toothpaste and Sambo Axle Grease.
Unfortunately, his adherence to real history quickly straitjackets the narrative, as it forces the film to pretend that American and world history would have unfolded in much the same way had the Confederacy prevailed. The non-viability of this approach fatally hits home once the chronology reaches the post-World War II era and Willmott tries to square such events as the JFK assassination, Vietnam, the Watts riots, etc., with the continued existence of the Confederate States. It just doesn’t wash.
Partly for this reason, pic’s early stretch is easily the most successful. Positioned as a history of the C.S.A. as reported by the British Broadcasting Service, pic recounts how French and British troops joined Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg to rout the North and force the Yankees’ surrender on April 9, 1864. A deftly rendered mock-D.W. Griffith short entitled “The Hunt for Dishonest Abe” helps recount how, with the help of Harriet Tubman, the defeated President Lincoln attempted to flee in blackface before being arrested, imprisoned and ultimately exiled to Canada, where he languished in disgrace prior to a final filmed “interview” in 1905.
Meanwhile, the nation goes through a Reconstruction in which slavery is introduced in the North, “Dixie” becomes the national anthem, New York City and Boston burn, Asians are made slaves along with blacks and Jews are put on a reservation on Long Island. Info is conveyed not only in usual combo of stills and narration, but via additional “fictional” creations, such as excerpts from “The Jefferson Davis Story” (RKO, 1946) and “I Married an Abolitionist” (1955), might-have-been TV shows (“Leave It to Beulah”) and commercials for the likes of “Coon Chicken Inn” and “Niggerhair” cigarettes (actual products through the ’50s, per Willmott).
Some of the wittiest material posits Canada as a haven for anti-slavery proponents. Many eminent Americans, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony and Ralph Waldo Emerson, move north, many Negroes exile themselves there and the “Cotton Curtain” is constructed along the two countries’ massive border.
Meanwhile, the Confederacy pursues its ambition of a “tropical empire” by spreading its ideology into Mexico and South America, then pursues world domination via a World War II alliance with Hitler, who is seen visiting the White House.
As the narrative crumbles nonsensically thereafter, Willmott turns to mock TV shows and commercials to pad out the remaining running time, and climax turns on a “revelation” that scarcely seems far-fetched after the recent Strom Thurmond incident.
Willmott offers up quite a few pointed ideas and imaginative flights of fancy that succeed, up to a point, in removing the insulation from the kind of race talk that most people avoid for one reason or another. But pic sorely needed an anarchic spirit and irreverent humor to provide both the hilarity and the discomfiture to make it really connect with audiences.
Despite the inspiration provided by Ken Burns, aesthetic approach is at once zippier and less elegant than Burns’ own. Pic was made on modest means almost entirely in Kansas.