Watching the recent faux documentary Confederate States of America it is difficult to sort out which alternate reality is more farfetched: The one the film portrays or the one critics and fans embracing the film as an only slightly skewed portrait of modern day America seem so intent on residing in.
The conceit that launches the film is not dissimilar to any number of alternate history books or television programs and for those familiar with Civil War history not all that far outside the realm of possibility: The French and British enter the war on the side of the South tipping the scales in favor of the Confederacy, much as the United States tipped the scales in favor of the Allied powers in 1918. New York City is razed instead of Atlanta. Grant surrenders to Lee. The South annexes the North. Lincoln becomes known as the man who lost the War of Northern Aggression, is tried as a war criminal and exiled to Canada.
Written and directed by Kansas University film studies professor Kevin Wilmott, Confederate States of America devolves fairly quickly out of this What If?-type territory, however, settling into the groove of a modern day British television documentary if British television documentaries were a hybrid mix of Ken Burns montages, less witty knock-offs of Chappelle's Show skits and a perversely gratuitous affection for the epithet "nigger."
Here are a few highlights: Former abolitionists in the North are converted to enthusiastic slaveholders when the Confederacy offers tax rebates to those former Union citizens who buy slaves. (Tax cuts equal slavery, get it?) There is a NAACP, but the acronym now stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Chattel People. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy still run against one another in 1960, but Nixon is a pro-slavery candidate and Kennedy is the man who "put a handsome face on emancipation." Elvis is arrested as a race traitor. The Home Shopping Network has morphed into the Slave Shopping Network. Reagan's cabinet is filled with enthusiastic slaveholders.
So one might imagine the moviegoers and film reviewers of the country walking out of the theater with a great sigh of relief at the good fortune we all have to live in a country where the Lost Cause was indeed lost. Not so. One's ability to be an intellectual in America today is directly related to the degree with which he or she is willing to see all things through the glass darkly. It's not hard to find those willing to oblige.
Thus, we have J. Hoberman intoning ominously from the vaunted pages of the Village Voice, "there's something terribly familiar about this historical fantasy." Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times writes the film displays "a world that, in a savage twist, is closer to the one we actually live in than we might imagine." Writing for Newsday John Anderson concurs: "The Confederate States of America has only grown more provocative since its premiere at Sundance two festivals ago. In those two years, what seemed like one filmmaker's sardonic vision of what might have happened now seems to capture what a lot of people seem to wish had happened. And which may, depending on your point of view, be happening."
Well, I'm not quite clear on the particular events of the last two years Anderson is alluding to, but here is what is happening in the film: All religions but Christianity are outlawed. Most Jews are deported and those who aren't end up sequestered on a reservation -- Long Island. The Confederacy takes over South America, forms a slave empire of puppet democracies and institutes what they hope will eventually be a global system of apartheid which is sustained by an evil capitalist global market economy. As part of that plan and out of a hate for inferior races, U.S. forces bomb the Japanese on December 7, 1941. The CSA appreciates Hitler's racial policies, but rejects a formal alliance when he decides to murder Jews rather than enslave then because, "it is immoral to waste any human livestock."
Pray tell, brave-yet-vague critics, which part of this is "terribly familiar"? Where are these slavery-loving, Hitler-sympathizing, Jew-ghettoizing racist "manys" who "seem to wish" what Confederate States of America portrays had happened?
There are some powerful moments in Confederate States of America, especially towards the end of the film when Wilmott reveals that fake advertisements for Niggerhair Cigarettes, Darky Toothpaste and Coon Chicken Inn restaurant were based on all-too-real products sold into the 1950s and '60s. Images of real lynchings and injuries from the whipping post similarly are terribly disturbing and make blood run cold. But the power of these moments is frittered away in the incessant attempt to somehow conflate those who committed such atrocities with anyone who has voted for a Republican in the last 30 years.
Wilmott for his part is willing to ignore any criticism, dismissing "the white reaction, that's ticked off about it," ironically, as "politically correct." Likewise, blacks who quibble with the film are accused of seeing their lives through rose-colored glasses.
"There are always going to be some black people who are upset that there's not a sense of victory in the film," Wilmott told one interviewer. "I made that choice specifically, because one of the problems we have today is that people want to be believe it's over."
Wilmott's reluctance to acknowledge any progress whatsoever is understandable. If the day ever came when the strides American society has made towards becoming a nation of individuals rather than a crass and unequal conglomeration of races caught up in groupthink prisons of the mind, creating edgy cinema and political commentary would inevitably take considerably more effort than building up straw men, conflating vague generalizations into misleading certainties and throwing around the word "nigger" with an acid casualness that belies the true horror of its history.
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