The Alternative History of 'CSA'

Suppose the South had won the Civil War and slavery were still a part of America. Kevin Wilmot's mockumentary Confederate States of America dreams up a world where slaves are bought and sold over the Internet, and the U.S. has a tense relationship with Canada.

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Mock documentaries like This is Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman usually make us laugh, but a new mock doc, CSA: Confederate States of America, is made of sterner stuff. Los Angeles Times and Morning Edition film critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

CSA: Confederate States of America adroitly combines the techniques of the mock documentary with the philosophy of alternative or what-if history. It provocatively presents the world as it would be if the South had won the Civil War and slavery persisted to this day. It's a world that writer/director Kevin Wilmot says is closer to the one we actually live in than we might guess.

The idea behind CSA is to make a reverse image version of Ken Burns' PBS success The Civil War. More than that, the plan was to place that mock documentary in the context of an evening of Confederate Network Television. That means periodic breaks for commercials, lots of them, commercials that add up to a ferocious satire on race in America.

Unidentified Man: Train for a new and exciting career at CI, the Cartright Institute for the Study of Freedom Illnesses. In just months, not years, CI can train you for a rewarding career as an overseer, paddy-roller(ph), servant monitor, breeder, or get an Associates Degree in e-slave accounting.

TURAN: Filmmaker Wilmont is an assistant professor in the film studies department at Kansas University, and he doesn't have enormous cinematic resources. CSA is rough around the edges, especially where the acting and the film's invented characters are concerned. But the way CSA works out its ideas is so provoking that its drawbacks seem unimportant.

Wilmont's shrewdest idea is to stick as close as possible to the reality of history in terms of both words and images. The film's imaginings about what happened after Grant surrenders to Lee are fascinating, starting with the flight to Canada of everyone from Abraham Lincoln to escaped slaves and abolitionists. That eventually results in a Cold War with Canada and the creation of the metaphorical Cotton Curtain between the two countries.

Unidentified Man #2: About 20,000, mostly Northerners, followed Garrison across the border to Canada. Among the notable expatriates were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the outspoken Wendell Phillips.

Unidentified Man #3: (As Wendell Phillips) It does not surprise me that the North has taken to this monstrous plan. There were always just a few true Abolitionists. For if the North were ever against slavery, it would not have lasted these many years.

TURAN: CSA is especially inventive in its wide variety of bogus footage. There is a spot for Runaway, a TV show dealing with the capture of fugitive slaves. Plus public service announcements for the government's Office of Racial Identity, concerned with pinpointing people who are passing for white. There are even clips from that old Hollywood classic, I Married an Abolitionist.

Filmmaker Wilmot says in a director's note that he created CSA out of a conviction that in many ways the South did win the Civil War, maybe not on the battlefield, but they won the peace.

It's a tribute to the strengths of this unusual film that by its closing credits that sentiment doesn't seem completely farfetched.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for Morning Edition and the Los Angeles Times.

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