'CSA: The Confederate States of America'
NOAH ADAMS, host:
A motion picture that recently opened in Memphis and Charlottesville, Virginia, does its best to claw open old wounds. The film is called "CSA: The Confederate States of America." It's a fake documentary examining a premise long favored by alternative history buffs: What if the South had won the Civil War? As NPR's Greg Allen reports, it is a loaded topic that filmmaker Kevin Willmott approaches with satire and humor.
GREG ALLEN reporting:
"CSA" purports to be a documentary produced by the fictional British Broadcasting System looking at legal slavery in America, that in this version of history still persists 150 years after the South won the Civil War. It's in turns scholarly, dramatic, funny and potentially offensive, as in this commercial.
(Soundbite of "CSA: The Confederate States of America")
Unidentified Woman #1: Viola, honey, I just saw your slave running off down the street! Hurry, call the police.
Unidentified Woman #2: No problem.
Unidentified Woman #1: No problem? Why, aren't you afraid he'll get away?
Unidentified Woman #2: Heavens, no. Not with the Shackle.
Unidentified Man #2: Introducing the Shackle, the revolutionary new way of servant monitoring. Just...
ALLEN: It's probably a good thing that "CSA's" writer and director, Kevin Willmott, is African-American. Willmott, who teaches film at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has worked in Hollywood, selling scripts to filmmaker Oliver Stone and the producers of the NBC miniseries "The '70s." He was born and raised in Kansas and has long been interested in telling stories from slavery, in part because of where he grew up. In the 1850s, Kansas was torn by violence between pro- and anti-slavery proponents. The political turmoil gave rise to abolitionist John Brown and set the stage for the Civil War. But when he began submitting scripts, Willmott says he quickly found that Hollywood doesn't consider slavery commercial.
Professor KEVIN WILLMOTT (University of Kansas): I was trying to find a new way to tell the story, a way that did not compromise on the horrors and the difficulties of what slavery was, but at the same time was a way that could be entertaining and reach people who would normally never see a film about the Civil War or slavery or history or anything like that.
ALLEN: Willmott's partner and producer, Rick Cowan, freely admits that the satiric pseudo-documentary is bound to offend many people, including some African-Americans, Southerners and students of Civil War history. But he says he hopes it succeeds in getting Americans to confront something they don't often acknowledge: the persistent legacy of slavery.
Mr. RICK COWAN (Producer, "CSA: The Confederate States of America"): Blacks are embarrassed or angry about it. Whites feel guilty. So how do you talk about it? And it's through humor. And we both got--it's like, `Yeah, we could actually do that.'
ALLEN: In style, "CSA" evokes Ken Burns' documentary series "The Civil War," using old photos and interviews with Southern-accented historians. As much as possible, the filmmakers say they based "CSA" on real history, in many cases with the roles reversed. Jefferson Davis now a beloved statesman; Abraham Lincoln a disgraced has-been exiled in Canada. Lincoln appears in a grainy, jumpy, black-and-white interview purportedly filmed shortly before his death in 1905.
(Soundbite of "CSA: The Confederate States of America")
Unidentified Man #2: (As Abraham Lincoln) I fail to see its--the abolitionists understood what the consequences would be. They knew it was always about the Negro, but I was blind. Now I see. I see what our once great country has become. I only wish that I had truly cared for the Negro.
ALLEN: Willmott and Cowan concede that footage may upset those who revere Lincoln as the sainted person who freed the slaves rather than a savvy pragmatist motivated by economic and political realities of the time.
Prof. WILLMOTT: We tried to be honest about Lincoln, you know? We tried to be fair about him as well, except he wasn't an abolitionist, you know? Frederick Douglass and others brought him a long way over years to understand the horrors of slavery.
Mr. COWAN: Yeah, emancipation to him, to a certain extent, was a political necessity and not an act of generosity or humanity.
ALLEN: "CSA" was accepted at last year's Sundance Film Festival, where hundreds of people waiting to be see it had to be turned away. Spike Lee signed on as executive producer, and distribution rights were sold to IFC Films, a company that last year had a big success with another controversial documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11." So far in limited release, it's generated some positive reviews. The Memphis Commercial Appeal called it `ingenious and disturbing.' There's also been some heated online discussions. One Web poster called it `the hate-Whitey film of all time.' Ultimately, Kevin Willmott says, he's using the pseudo-documentary form to tell a story Americans usually choose to ignore, a story that started long before the Civil War and which he says he saw in the faces of some of those in New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Prof. WILLMOTT: When we see them, we're shocked. But that's the other America. In my opinion, it's the CSA. It's the remnants, the legacy of the CSA. When I looked at those people in front of the Convention Center, I saw the legacy of slavery. I saw people who were in the cycle of still trying to break out of this thing that had started a long time ago.
ALLEN: "CSA" is now playing only in Memphis. IFC says it wants to gauge reaction there before launching plans for a national release early next year. Greg Allen, NPR News.
ADAMS: And now a quick update on our main story. Vice presidential adviser Lewis Libby has been indicted on five counts, including obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements. He has resigned and has left the White House. Vice President Dick Cheney has issued a statement saying he accepts Libby's resignation, but with deep regret. Earlier at a news conference, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said the charges alleged in this indictment are every bit as important as what his team was initially investigating, disclosing classified information. Fitzgerald says Libby continued to insist throughout the investigation and under oath that he learned about CIA operative Valerie Plame from reporters. Fitzgerald said it would be a compelling story if only it were true. He said the investigation uncovered multiple documents and conflicting testimony showing Libby leaked the information to reporters.
More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
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