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The South rises and falls in ‘CSA’

Stewart Oksenhorn
"CSA: The Confederate States of America," a mock-documentary by Kevin Willmott, shows this week at the Wheeler Opera House. (Corbis)
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By most standards, the Union victory in the American Civil War turned out to be a good thing. Some 150 years later, the U.S. of A. is Earth’s superpower; a model of democracy, as dreadfully imperfect as it may be; and the union is still more or less united, with no real threat yet to be divided into Bushistan and Liberalia.

Imagine, however, a few battles had gone differently, or that the French and British had been persuaded to fight on the side of the Confederacy. Or, to put it in terms the current administration would appreciate, that the Almighty decided that the residents of the Bible Belt were, indeed, fighting in his name, and intervened on behalf of the South.This is the scenario set forth by Kevin Willmott in “CSA: The Confederate States of America.” Billed in some places as a mockumentary, I expected a brand of goofy humor along the lines of “Best in Show” or “This Is Spinal Tap” – maybe the president sitting on the porch of the White House, picking banjo and drinking sweet tea.But Willmott is up to a different game here. An assistant professor at the University of Kansas, Willmott has created a new genre, the deadly serious mockumentary. “CSA” is presented as if it were a made-for-TV movie, a controversial British production being broadcast in America for the first time. The film-within-the-film is a dry historical documentary that imagines a tragic shadow version of the American experience from 1861 into the new millennium.This telling, however, begins with a triumphant Confederacy. With the South in possession of the country’s two most valuable assets – cotton and slaves – and President Lincoln presented as a pragmatist who will take any position on slavery, so long as it preserves the Union, the South overwhelms the Yankees, and takes Washington, D.C. Lincoln has become a fugitive, and, in one of the clever twists on history, a passenger on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, headed to the free territory of Canada. Referring to the bounty on the exiled Lincoln’s head, Tubman says, “We’re both niggers now, Mr. President.”

Over the ensuing, imaginary century and a half, racism and slavery are the crux issues for the country, a powder keg that threatens to explode over and over. Emancipation-minded whites (Thoreau, Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe) and escaped slaves head north, to ignite a Canada-based resistance that eventually becomes the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Chattel People. The CSA, in response, becomes more racist and insular, eventually outlawing all non-Christian religions – Catholicism, after much debate, is tolerated, and Jews are given a small reservation on Long Island. In good times, the CSA becomes expansionist, conquering Mexico and South America, and making slaves of native Americans and Asians; in bad times like the Depression, they reinvigorate the economy by supplying slaves to their territories. The CSA finds an ally in Hitler, but butts heads with him over his idea to exterminate the Jews. Why waste a valuable piece of property?None of this is of the ha-ha variety of funny. But the structure of “CSA” allows for commercials and TV promo spots, which are a different breed of humor. Ads for Darky Toothpaste and the Cartwright Institute – a low-budget school specializing in slave technology, for those who couldn’t make it into medical school – give a glimpse at where slavery has left the present-day CSA.The most jolting of these ads is a spot for the TV show, “Runaway.” It is based on “Cops” – and looks just like the real “Cops,” with white police slapping the cuffs on black people.

If that ad doesn’t drive home the point that there is plenty of actual reality in the alternate reality of “CSA,” Willmott concludes the film by revealing that not all of his film is fiction. There actually was a Darky toothpaste – and a Coon Chicken Inn, and Sambo brand products. And there still is Aunt Jemima syrup.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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