CSA: The Confederate States of America

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/08/06 21:17:57

"A nifty idea that goes nowhere fast."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“CSA: The Confederate States of America” is an idea without a purpose. Its central notion - it’s a mockumentary about the history of America had the South won the Civil War - is so very promising that writer/director Kevin Willmott’s failure to properly run with it only compounds the eventual disappointment.

The joke of the film is that we don’t just get the mockumentary, but a full evening’s worth of Confederate television; this is some local station in the CSA getting their hands on a British documentary about the post-Civil War history of America, and peppering it with a whole heap of commercials for modern products. Some of these are very deft parodies of modern TV advertising conventions (complete with tacky graphics, bad actors, and obnoxious announcers), others are less convincing spoofs (like the half-baked, overlong parody of “Cops” that features the capture of runaway slaves) that wouldn’t make the cut on “Mad TV.” All fake ads rely on one conceit: everything for sale in the modern CSA involves slavery or racism.

Which is clever for, oh, the first ten times or so. But then Willmott keeps cutting in with more and more commercials with increasing frequency, and we quickly grow tired of the gimmick due to its cheap redundancy. The joke ultimately fizzles merely by repetition; by film’s end, Willmott has beaten a dead horse.

It’s not until the end of the picture that we uncover the real point of fake ads, which is: in the past, there really were a whole bunch of American products slathered in as much disturbing racism as the jokey ones we get here. In fact, many of the fake ads turn out to be for real products - somebody really did sell Niggerhair cigarettes, and anyone who’s seen “Ghost World” will recognize the creepy mascot for the Coon Chicken Inn.

But if this is the point of Willcott’s film - that racism did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation, and that it prevailed into marketing strategies and brand names throughout the early 20th century - then why not make a serious documentary about it, with this disheartening fact right out in the open? By hiding the intentions until the end, Willcott loses the viewer. We’re left scratching our heads. Some of these ads have the bite of a solid sketch on “Chappelle’s Show,” but to what end? To tell us that had the South won, we’d be watching slaves be sold on a home shopping channel?

It’s a wandering satire, commentary without any focus or point. Consider the mockumentary itself. Late in the film, we follow a politician whose past of possible racial mixture is uncovered; in a press conference, the politician familiarly declares, “My great-granddaddy did not have sexual relations with that woman.” We smile at the reference, but that’s it. What does this have to say, other than Clinton’s most famous remark is still recognizable, an easy target for lazy political jokesters?

Without focus, the whole movie becomes one big hit-or-miss affair. The merits of the “historical” ideas aside (while some what-if events are backed by fact, others require leaps of logic too grand to accept; would the South actually have gone so far as to invade and take over the North had they won?), the presentation of various faux-historical artifacts depends entirely on Willcott’s success at mimicking the styles of older media. A parody of a D.W. Griffith silent is remarkably on the nose in both style and substance, but a send-up of 1940s Hollywood melodrama is less believable. Much like the fake ads, some of the fake movies and TV shows work, others bomb. Even the documentary itself is uneven, with commercial bumpers straight out of PBS or the History Channel, but also with talking heads and news clips that not once convince.

And through it all, we keep asking, what’s the point of this? Is it just a chance to milk a few laughs out of poor-taste racism? Is it out to expose some prejudice that has yet to leave our national subconscious? And should one read the scenes that has the CSA in cahoots with Hitler during World War II as some sort of allegory for today’s political climate? Maybe it’s all three, but Willcott’s failure to hone his ideas and his decision to cop out with an ultimately monotonous rehash of the same punchline for a full ninety minutes leave “CSA” as little more than a novelty act that can’t even hold itself up for its entire running time. There are many smart ideas pushing “CSA” forward; if we could have seen them in full force, then perhaps the film would have actually worked.

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