Let's speculate, shall we?
What if Charles Lindbergh -- who, along with so many other fine Americans of his time, was an anti-Semite -- had defeated FDR for president in 1940, and then sanctioned a public policy that led to a national pogrom? Been there: Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America plays out this scenario chillingly well.
And what if President Jefferson Davis and his Rebs won the Civil War? What would the Land of the Free look like today? That's the premise of writer/director Kevin Willmott's C.S.A.: Confederate States of America, a coolly funny, thoroughly conceived black comedy (seriously, no pun intended) about an alternative American history.
C.S.A. takes the form of a mock documentary, made by Brits and finally being aired, after a two-year censorship delay, on American television. This means we get faux-commercial breaks: Some Dukes of Hazzard clones sell axle grease, and a TV station airs a promo for Leave It to Beulah, a classic '50s show, now in rerun revival, about a happy-go-lucky colored maid. The joke here is that '50s TV pretty much did portray blacks that way, and that in the 21st-century South, plenty of good ol' boys in overalls still live under their General Lees.
But in our real history, Harriet Tubman didn't paint Lincoln black to help him escape, he didn't spend two years in prison when they caught him, and he wasn't finally exiled to Canada, where many slaves fled after the South won the war. However, he did say that he freed the slaves only to save the Union, and that if he could have saved the Union without freeing them, then he would have done it that way.
Willmott's trenchant film reminds us of things like that -- which we should know -- and of how some of our current American culture, in all 50 states, still feels frighteningly like the South actually won. (Recall that the Voting Rights Act became law, after a struggle, only in 1965 -- a full century after the toothless 15th Amendment gave blacks the franchise.) He presents it all with only the occasional smirk or lapse into overly broad humor, and he laces it with subtleties to remind us that the post-bellum North doesn't have as much to be proud of as it likes to think.
In one bitterly funny set piece, we learn that President Davis reunited the nation by re-instituting slavery in the North. Davis got the idea from his faithful black manservant (played, in a scene from the Hollywood film that dramatizes the incident, by a stuffy Shakespearean actor in blackface). Says the documentary's black scholar, a Canadian history professor: "Northerners began to appreciate what Southerners have always known: It's good to be the master."
What was the fate of Indians in this alternative nation? Of Hispanics? Of Jews? Slaughtered, conquered and turned into slaves by Hitler, respectively: Willmott theorizes all of it. The South's victory in the Civil War creates a burgeoning American manifest destiny that sets the C.S.A. on a "quest for world domination." There's a brilliant sequence that uses real documentary footage of JFK, who still becomes president in Willmott's film, running on an abolitionist stand when polls show support for slavery at its nadir. Needless to say, the Kennedy of C.S.A. meets the same fate as the historic one. Soon, though, comes President Reagan, who helps us "put that era of self-doubt behind us."
How likely is this America that might have been? Wouldn't the tide of history have put an end to slavery? Let's just say that our real America tends not to do things with all deliberate speed. I would call this film the ne plus ultra of worst-case scenarios if America weren't currently trying to reorder the world. The fact that our president comes from Texas might seem like an easy joke to make right here. But it's not his war anyway, and Cheney and Rummy aren't from the South.
C.S.A. takes very few cheap shots, and with its intriguing layers of signification -- films within films, fabricated histories laced with the disturbing facts -- Willmott creates both a think piece and a smart entertainment. It's a lesson in how the winners write the history books, and how even the facts don't always speak for themselves. What's the penalty for trying to pass as white? In the C.S.A., you can call a hotline to report suspected offenders. In the U.S.A., you called Sheriff Clark, or you just did the job yourself.