Tuesday, August 22, 2006

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004)

So. Pretend you’re sitting down at home to watch the must-see British documentary of the year. It’s so controversial, you’re even willing to sit through the commercials. Now pretend you live, not in the United, but the Confederate States of America. And that the documentary is about the history of your great nation.

Oh, you should probably also assume you’re white.

Because this fake-doc is an exercise in alternate universe building. The South was able to convince France and England to come into the Civil War on their side. The Confederacy won. Lincoln went into hiding, Davis became prez, the North was re-introduced to slavery, and Canada became the cultural hotspot of the western world. Leaving lots of really bad actors to play in this doc’s recreation of history, it must be said.

This fascinating idea is presented complete with commercials whose offensiveness rises with each break. Think Aunt Jemima times a million. In between a fake history of subjugation, false science, non-suffrage for women, and the inevitability of the Kennedy assassination in any timeline, we are introduced to a vision of what it would be like to live in this world. Advertising extrapolated from actual products and campaigns now deemed too politically incorrect to even mention. (If you saw Ghost World, you have a clue as to the kind of thing I’m talking about.) And that’s not even including the rampant blackface employed.

This is a tricky film, because there’s a fine line between laughing uncomfortably and turning something off. For my part, I was laughing, and then I was staring open-mouthed, and then I was frantically trying to work out how I felt about their version of history and if it jibed with what I’d extrapolate from their initial premise. Not all of it rings accurate for me, and the film would have been much better served by acting that made me believe the clips of “historical films” and commercials were actually real. But its treatment of racial issues is bold in the extreme, even if, in the end, all you’ve really learned is how offensive this country can be. Some may argue that the film is too offensive itself and be made uncomfortable by the (satirically intended) humorous take on slavery; but it’s also a confrontation with our dark history, and a valiant piece of work.

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