One of the great viewing experiences of recent years was seeing the trailer for C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America recently before a full house at the Belcourt. The crowd was there for the Sarah Silverman movie, so these were folks who consider themselves unshockable. But as the trailer ran—with its eBay slave auctions, discount pickaninnies and ads for electronic manacles—the crowd’s cooling from initial hilarity to self-conscious silence offered a prime lesson in contemporary racial discourse. Better not to make a sound than to say the wrong thing.
The best thing about Kevin Willmott’s audacious comic mock-doc—presented as a British TV survey of American history, after the Confederacy whupped the Union’s ass and drove Lincoln to Canada—is that there’s no correct response to it except uncomfortable laughter. In Willmott’s alternate history, the victorious Southerners find a magic way around the North’s moral qualms about slavery—tax breaks!—and literally set back women’s suffrage 100 years, while convincing their good bud Hitler that killing Jews is a waste of valuable chattel.
Some signposts remain: the bomb still drops on Japan—OK, Pearl Harbor was our bad—and Kennedy keeps his appointment in Dallas. Slapstick “re-creations” and bogus racist TV ads aside, Willmott hews closer to history than you might expect (or swallow). Whichever path American history took, he suggests, it would still face the same psychic scars from slavery, and fare no better at healing them. A Kansas film professor, he mimics the earnest, ponderous tone of public-TV history lessons—the soberly scanned archival photos, the mournfully plunked period music—so convincingly that the movie is a scary demonstration of the lulling quality Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.”
Before the credits, Willmott cites George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that you’d better make people laugh if you’re going to tell them the truth, or else they’ll kill you. Nothing in C.S.A. is as funny, or stings as hard, as Richard Pryor’s scarifying “Bicentennial Nigger” routine or Dave Chappelle’s now legendary black white-supremacist sketch. Willmott’s movie parodies tend to fall flat, either because of imprecise execution or budget restraints. As it turns out, nothing the director can concoct beats the ignoble truth: a shocking coda reveals how much of the movie is taken from historical record—even the commercial products. Old times, here, are not forgotten.