It’s hard to classify the genre of C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. The movie addresses the question: What if the South had won the Civil War? Describing the film as merely a mockumentary, or as social commentary, or as a dark comedy… none of those do justice to the jaw-dropping creativity and unparalleled world-building that director Kevin Willmott packs into the 88-minute runtime.
On the base level, the movie is a documentary – but it’s a documentary that was made within the alternate world, as opposed to present-day historians speculating about what might have happened. In other words, if you lived in the C.S.A., this is what you’d be watching. The in-world documentary chronicles the history of the Confederate States, starting with the Civil War (rebranded as the War of Northern Aggression), and working up to the early 2000’s. And no era or scandal is left out: Reconstruction, the early 1900’s, WWII, the 60’s, the Clinton affair… all of them are thoroughly dissected and fleshed out.
As expected, the country is dominated by white supremacists and colonialism, and slavery is still a harsh reality of American life (Canada, not surprisingly, becomes the refuge for runaways). And by virtue of being so comprehensive, multi-faceted, and academic in its approach, this outcome is 100% believable. It maps a trajectory that’s far more sinister than where our country actually is, which highlights how far we’ve come towards progress and equality. But it also underscores how much further we can still go – and how frighteningly easy it would have been to have taken a darker path.
In addition to the history, the actual presentation of the core documentary is believable – it feels as if you’re watching The History Channel or PBS, which only heightens the immersion. And the amount of information, parallels, and ‘what-ifs’ packed into each moment is stunning. Typically a movie about an alternate reality would never reach this level of detail – it would sacrifice world-building for characters and a storyline. Sans characters, the world-building is the storyline, and it’s a unique narrative technique that I’ve yet to find a comparable example of. Sherman’s Showcase might be the closest thing…
Now, as if that weren’t impressive enough on its own – this core documentary is intercut every 10 minutes or so with commercials, ads, and even a breaking news story. Again, imagine that you live in the alternate timeline, and you’re watching this on TV.
These commercial breaks make the history lesson look tame by comparison. A seemingly innocuous cigarette commercial that drops the N-word; an ad for the hit show ‘Leave it to Beulah’; a recruiting video to study freedom illnesses at the Cartwright Institute; a PSA urging citizens to report anybody who may not be 100% white to the Office of Racial Identity. And as the end-credits scene points out, many of the commercials are based in actual promotions and brands that were discontinued in our timeline for being racist.
Some of these segments are more timely than others. Like this:
If that one seems far-fetched, it is. In reality, we make our
slaves prisoners pay for the shackle themselves…
To borrow the movie’s opening quote from George Bernard Shaw: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you”. Ultimately, this is not a ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining’ movie to watch. But by tackling America’s history of racism with shock humor and creativity, it’s at least digestible. It seems our country, and the world at large, has finally reached a critical mass in the fight against systemic racism. C.S.A. is a potent reminder that we’ve made tremendous progress, but we still have our work cut out for us.
Oh, and it’s also free to watch on Youtube. 🙂