Martin’s quirky movies #5 Confederate States of America

csa-moon-landing

Loyal readers of my blog will know that I am a big fan of counterfactual history. In fact I dedicated a blog post to it – In defence of counterfactuals. As well as bringing history to life, they make a serious point: we live in a chaotic, uncertain world. When we study history, we need to be aware that things could have turned out differently. I am also a fan of counterfactual historical fiction. Recently I finished reading The Underground Airlines, the 2016 novel by Ben Winters, set in an alternate United States where the American Civil War never occurred and where slavery is still legal in the “Hard Four” southern states. Reading this book motivated me to go back to a film I had seen more than a decade ago in the days when I would actually go the cinema.

The film I am referring to is C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. It has a similar premise to Winters’s novel. This 2004 mockumentary, directed by Kevin Willmott, imagines a Southern victory with the result of the creation of the Confederate States of America. he film has various elements. What I love is the way Willmott blends reality and fiction. The central conceit of the mockumentary is a fake documentary within a fake documentary. This documentary is produced by the British Broadcasting Service. As it’s supposedly being broadcast on television, it is interspersed with faux commercial breaks.

The sad thing is that many of the products advertised really did exist: Sambo X-15 Axle Grease, Darkie Toothpaste, Gold Dust washing powder, Niggerhair cigarettes and the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant. This type of racism is not so distant. I can still remember the Robertson’s golly or the Black and White Minstrel Show when I was growing up.

There are fake adverts giving a modern take on the slave trade. We have the Slave Shopping Network and its slave auctions:
States of America. The film has various elements. What I love is the way Willmott blends reality and fiction. The central conceit of the mockumentary is a fake documentary within a fake documentary. This documentary is produced by the British Broadcasting Service. As it’s supposedly being broadcast on television, it is interspersed with faux commercial breaks.

The sad thing is that many of the products advertised really did exist: Sambo X-15 Axle Grease, Darkie Toothpaste, Gold Dust washing powder, Niggerhair cigarettes and the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant. This type of racism is not so distant. I can still remember the Robertson’s golly or the Black and White Minstrel Show when I was growing up.

There are fake adverts giving a modern take on the slave trade. We have the Slave Shopping Network and its slave auctions:

And once you have the slave what better than an electronic shackle to keep control of your property:

These ads may be fake, but there was said to be Drapetomania, a mental illness that caused Black slaves to want to flee captivity. It was first diagnosed in 1851 by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright, who said that this disorder was “unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers.” He put it down to masters being overfamiliar with their slaves, treating them as equals:

If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night–separated into families, each family having its own house–not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbours, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed–more so than any other people in the world. If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.

Willmott alluded to Cartwright in another of the ads:

When you create counterfactual history like this, you create an alternate universe. Indeed, there are many differences. The film’s official website contains an expanded timeline of the history of the C.S.A. In this world the Civil War is known as The War of Northern Aggression. President Lincoln is not assassinated at the Ford Theatre, but lived in disgrace until 1905. President William McKinley’s assassin is an abolitionist rather than anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Rosa Parks is identified as a Canadian terrorist and a member of the J.B.U, the “John Brown Underground”. It is the confederate flag which is planted on the moon. Tim McVeigh blows up the Jefferson Memorial in Oklahoma City, with his execution being broadcast on pay-per-view. The “Muslim Menace” looms large. The Gulf Wars become the first and second Crusades, whose goals include regime change, the guarantee of oil supplies, and the conversion of the entire population to Christianity. Perhaps the history is not so alternate after all.

The ultimate message of the film is that maybe the South did win. That many of their attitudes did prevail. This is a complex question. Incredible progress has been made. The idea of an African- American president would have seemed like science-fiction barely a generation ago. The great institutional barriers have gone, but structural inequality is another matter.

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