Kevin Willmott’s imaginative The Confederate States of America is a documentary set in a parallel universe in which the Confederate South won the American Civil War. Using the old Open University format of interviews, historical evidence and old movie footage to tell its story, it is even interspersed by advert breaks from this parallel world, depicting shining happy white people and their subservient black underclass.
Abraham Lincoln is defeated and attempts escape in blackface. The economy, fuelled by unpaid workers, expands rapidly. America expands south into Mexico and South America. The Northern states are compelled by taxation to accept slavery. African leaders sell tribes across the Atlantic for money. Hitler is advised not to exterminate his Jews but to put them to work. Canada becomes the centre of abolitionism and suffers air strikes as a consequence.
The fictional history is worked out in convincing detail, and even the more wild elements – the draconian race laws splitting up families, the lack of votes for women in the Fifties – have a plausible ring. We are not allowed the comfort of knowing this is all fantasy: Willmott has done his research, and translated many elements of South Africa during apartheid and Nazi Germany to his Confederate States.
To maintain its puritanical exclusion of the black race, this twisted America finds itself unable to include anyone. In one “film-clip” the rousing speech given by an Army Captain maintains “God gave the world to the white man. We just haven’t claimed it all – yet”.
The film’s use (and misuse) of large historical events – the assassination of Kennedy, “the Cotton Curtain”, “the war on abolitionism” – is intriguing. CSA is often both witty and dangerous, holding up a mirror to real world events: if we know that the Confederate’s wars are really about power and control at home, what does that tell us about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? If the Southern states present the Northern states as simple-minded and foolish only by default, what does that suggest about our own views of Southern America? Its American polticians are all clean-cut white men in suits – just as they are today.
The satirical tone is pretty dark throughout and at times the relish with which the writers presents the racism of his fictional world can make for unpleasant watching. There is no great rebellion and no Martin Luther King. From the first advert, in which one black figure appears the end, cheerily raking the lawn, slavery is portrayed as normal and acceptable. At least things are presented from the “British” perspective; the key narrator is a black woman who gives the audience some point of empathy on the events she is relating.
The film is a little too long, and as it approaches the modern day its history begins to suffer from a lack of direction. The adverts become a repetitive intrusion (although there’s a sting to their tail at the very end). Striving for some kind of moral comeuppance the film introduces a subplot about a Presidential candidate that is witty if unconvincing.
By posing no questions explicitly CSA offers a myriad of different interpretations: on the irrepressible progress of freedom, on the enriched nature of a diverse culture, on the racial inequities that still exist, both in the US and across the rest of the world. It could be seen to be damning the Bush administration or equally that of Iran. But it does require us to make those interpretations. Thoughtful and intriguing.