C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

C.S.A..The Confederate States of America

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America certainly has an interesting premise, but in the end I don’t know that this movie does as much with it as it could have.

In the parallel universe of this film, the Confederacy won the Civil War, and introduced slavery into the states that didn’t already have it. Slavery continues to exist in the present.

The form of the film is a Ken Burns-style documentary telling the story of the Confederate nation. It is supposedly a British documentary, being shown—with certain apologetic disclaimers for its insufficiently conservative content—on a local American TV station. Adding to the realism is that there are commercial breaks every so often.

Though parts of it will certainly elicit laughs, and I’ve seen it described as a comedy, mostly it plays it straight.

I take it the point is that while in certain respects this alternate version of America would be worse than the real one—what with their still being slavery, and with race in popular culture stuck in a roughly early 20th century mode (minstrel shows, Stepin Fetchit-style humorous negros)—it’s really more different than worse. The militarism has different targets, the Cold War style propaganda is directed at a different country (Canada), the theocratic elements are more blatant, etc., but it’s a lot of the same kind of stuff.

It just seems like it could have hit that point more effectively. In principle I like the idea of trying to show what’s wrong with a real case that people are too wrapped up in emotionally to see clearly, by creating an analogous unfamiliar case that maybe they’ll be willing and able to see more objectively. But I never felt like this movie lived up to its potential in that regard.

Part of the problem is that it’s very uneven in quality. There are times the academics or whoever the talking heads are providing commentary and keeping the story going look and act impressively like one would expect in this kind of documentary, and there are times it’s too obvious they’re reciting written lines rather than speaking extemporaneously in an interview.

Similarly, while a couple of the commercials come reasonably close to looking real, most look more like something you’d see on a sketch comedy TV show.

I’m not sure what are all the things that make a commercial look like a commercial, but there are certain conventions—whether it be the camera angles, the facial expressions, how music is used, whether it’s film or video, the use of text on the screen, whatever—that are somehow what I’ve come to expect subconsciously. And if something doesn’t fulfill those expectations, I know it’s “off,” even if I can’t articulate exactly how. Like maybe something as simple as that commercials typically are thirty or sixty seconds long, so a pretend commercial that’s twenty-one or thirty-eight seconds long is not going to feel properly paced.

And a lot of the commercials (and other things) in this movie are like that—they just didn’t get something about the intangibles quite right. (Well, and it’s doubtful that even in a modern Confederacy, every single commercial would have to do with race.)

Maybe the problem I’m having with this movie is I felt drawn into certain aspects of it that are the least important. Like watching Forrest Gump to see how well or poorly they manage to work him into famous historical events, I was focused on how coherent and plausible a parallel history they could create, how much the faux documentary looked like a documentary, how much the faux commercials looked like commercials, etc. So in my mind I was evaluating more the gimmicky stuff, rather than laughing at the humor or really feeling anything deep while contemplating 21st century slavery and all the inhumane and awful pseudo-history the movie tells, or while contemplating the real world versions of that ugliness.

I don’t know if that’s more the movie’s fault or my fault, but I wish I had gotten something more out of this than just acknowledging at the end that they were reasonably clever in sustaining this odd premise. I think they could have done more with this idea, though I don’t claim to be able to articulate just what that might be.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is probably still worth seeing and thinking about.

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