I Wish I Wasn't in Dixie
By Peter Wong
"What if the South had won the Civil War?" This alternate history query has provided grist for novels by such folks as Ward Moore and Harry Turtledove. To my knowledge, charting the ramifications of a Confederate victory has never before been the subject of a film. Enter Kevin Willmott with his film C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America.
The time is the present day. The place is an America where a black gardener can be casually referenced in a television insurance commercial as "property." How did this America come to be? The answers are provided by the controversial titular British Broadcasting Service documentary within the film, which forms the bulk of the movie. News bulletins and commercials for such things as Blackie toothpaste provide present-day texture for Willmott’s hypothetical world.
C.S.A. traces the history of the Confederate States Of America from the Civil War to the present day using talking heads, film clips, and even the occasional song. The divergence point from our world’s Civil War comes when C.S.A. ambassador Judah P. Benjamin convinces England and France to intervene militarily at Gettysburg and rout the Union forces. From that point, Canada eventually becomes the haven for abolitionists and such cultural dissidents as Mark Twain and Richard Wright. The C.S.A., in the meantime, conquers South America, treats (an unconvincing-looking) Adolf Hitler as an ally, and successfully fights a pre-emptive war with Japan.
Willmott’s alternate history film may thematically cover a roughly 140-year time period, but the film’s strongest alternate history segments come early on with its coverage of the consolidation and expansion of the C.S.A.’s slave-based economy. Greed and/or the desire to improve one’s social status prove key to the C.S.A.’s expansion. A mock 20th Century industrial documentary economically and socially equates possessing a slave to possessing a fancy car. In this light, the Civil War becomes recast as a struggle against socially damaging greed. Can one morally justify accumulating wealth or social status if the price for doing so is exploiting other human beings? Given our present materialistic age, that question still needs to be asked.
As the film moves further into the 20th Century, the re-working of American history feels less like a continuity of events and more like a series of dark comic skits of varying levels of success. The most successful tweaking turns the Abolitionists into the C.S.A.’s version of Communism. This invention works because both movements can be perceived as being hostile to the concept of possession of private property. "Possession of private property" may be emotional comfort food. But what counts as private property? What constitutes possession? Other bits of historical invention include making the tale of World War II’s all-Nisei Army unit an all-black unit and turning the Bill Clinton "scandal" into one involving a lack of racial purity. Overall, however, the film’s individual bits of cleverness don’t necessarily translate into the type of comic momentum that carries the viewer through the final reel.
Where C.S.A. really falters is its refusal to completely follow through on its initial historical speculations. The film itself offers no hints regarding the relationship (if any) between the U.S.S.R.’s Communist sphere and the C.S.A.’s pro-slavery sphere. In addition it fails to consider relations between the C.S.A. and Canada. Canada serves as the main haven for abolitionists, yet the pro-slavery empire makes no effort to invade its northern neighbor, even though the C.S.A. has successfully waged pre-emptive war against Japan and conquered all of South America. Nothing indicates that Canada possesses either the military might or the international alliances that would have deterred C.S.A.’s hawks from crushing the abolitionist haven.
Ironically, charting how differently a South-victorious America turned out historically would have undercut Willmott’s real goal. The director wanted viewers to see how in far too many ways our America is not that far removed culturally from his film’s alternate America. A "Cops"-style reality show depicting the re-capturing of escaped slaves suggests that white control of "deviant" black behavior is still a major cultural concern. C.S.A. features a medical research group dedicated to finding the brain damage or illness that spurs slaves to escape. Our world has mainstream commentators who don’t consider economic inability as an explanation for black residents’ failure to escape New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit.
The director sees prejudice against blacks as interlinked with denying equality to women and Asians, amongst others. Once prejudice against one group becomes culturally acceptable, it becomes easier to accord other groups the same treatment. Thus in C.S.A.’s world women never receive the right to vote. A film clip from a melodrama about the conquest of South America treats the anti-C.S.A. forces as sub-humans unworthy of retaining their land. Yet while it is part of human nature to have individual preferences (e.g. this review you are reading), what is the dividing line between individual preference and mass prejudice?
Willmott argues that institutionalized hate ultimately impoverishes America’s soul. Racism becomes a casual part of C.S.A.’s business world, as demonstrated by its commercials. More importantly, James Baldwin and Richard Wright do not impact American belles lettres because they are black. Jazz and American popular music fail to get revolutionized by the contributions of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Motown sound. Elvis Presley is mentioned, but as the guy who implicitly packaged black musical moves for white consumption. In short, the ability to culturally contribute or to have that contribution valued should never become the sole birthright of one race or group.
C.S.A. may fall short as a work of genre fiction. But as a springboard for re-examining the persistence of racism and sexism, Willmott’s film provides an entertaining entrée for discussion.