Friday, January 26, 2007

United States of Confederacy

CSA: The Confederate States of America is a great movie, the spiritual progeny of Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee signed on to produce the movie after it had already been released), proof that creativity can overcome budgetary constrictions and the final nail in the coffin of Paul Haggis's tame and obvious Crash. In his Oscar acceptance speech Haggis quoted Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to society, it is a hammer by which to shape it.” In CSA the mirror is the hammer and I dare someone to peer into it honestly without flinching.

The premise is that the Confederacy wins the Civil War and slavery doesn't go away, ever. The movie is a faux-documentary (mockumentary is inappropriate and inaccurate) from the perspective of a BBC film crew in the late 1990's, but it is now being broadcast on "Confederate Television," which includes commercials that are the most shocking and guiltly exciting, parts of the documentary. The bracingly racist commercials are the comic relief that fulfils the promise of the movie's opening quote: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” Most of those laughs are just to fill the uncomfortable silence in the room as you watch the movie.

The movie closes with the revelation that the most racist scenes in the movie where taken from real life. While that ending is informative, it felt redundant after the commercial for "Runaway", "Cops" with a different theme song, a hillbilly blue-grass reworking of the iconic "Bad Boys" song. As I squirmed and listened to "Run boy, run boy, gonna catch you, run boy, run boy, ain't gonna get away," I stared at the U.S.A, not the C.S.A.

Some critics have questioned the historical interpretation of the movie, pointing out that it is light on historical accuracy and most of its presumptions wouldn't have happened. When a movie starts with the assumption that the U.S. still has legal slavery, it is safe to say that they have taken some liberties with history, but that is besides the point. The C.S.A. would be a straw man, a flat metaphor, if it was just an faux-cautionary tale of a history we barely avoided. The scary thing is that as evil as the C.S.A is- and it is evil enough to advise Hitler that it considered the Holocaust an immoral waste of manpower- it is just a rose by another name (how does "the American Holocaust" sound?). The C.S.A. took all of the Indian land and then sent the natives to boarding schools that eradicated their culture, it conscripted Chinese labors to builds the railroads, it practiced segregation (they called it "Separate and Unequal" and noted that it had the had the benefit of "letting the Mexicans know their place, and keeping them there"), and it formally ruled South America. That is a U.S. history course written with bracing honesty, from the victim's perspective, and it begs the question: "Who wrote our history?"

The film history of the C.S.A is a recreation of our own as well. Gone with the Wind becomes A Northern Wind, D.W. Griffith's The Hunt for Dishonest Abe replaces The Birth of a Nation, and WWII propaganda films and anti-Communist films become about literal race wars and abbies (the abolitionist communist equivalents in the C.S.A). Many people point out Abraham Lincoln's speech in Dishonest Abe (Lincoln in black-face says: "I ain't no prez'dent! I'z a darky!") as the most shocking scene in the movie, but for me the fictional speech that stood out was from the 1940 war movie, The Dark Jungle: "This world is made for the God fearing, to use as we see fit. For awhile these savages thought it was theirs, but their just renting it. It's ours, it was always ours, we just ain't claimed it all... yet. Kill em all, and let God sort em out." I would laugh, but then a coworker called me a coward last year because I "wouldn't defend our country in Iraq."

The C.S.A does suffer occasionally from its low budget; some sets are non-existent, some of the acting is uneven (I would like to praise Rupert Pate as the pro-C.S.A. talking head, he is excellent) and some of the green screen work is glaring. Fortunately, the strength of the writing carries the movie and overcomes any small technical glitches. Beyond being incendiary, it is consistently entertaining and features some riotously funny moments (the C.S.A.'s position on reparations springs to mind). This is the best movie of the 2006 (even if says it was made in 2004) and I wish it received some Academy buzz, and the attention that went along with that. The academy likes statement movies that make us feel self-righteously warm and fuzzy, CSA is too busy setting American history on fire to remind that those watching it are exempt from its recriminations.

1 comment:

Erik Loomis said...

Very interesting analysis.

What was frustrating about the movie to me is that it could have been just as scary without the flaws of historical analysis. Both Confederate policies and northern racism led to terrible things. Had the Confederacy won, even more terrible things would have happened. Grounded in a reasonable counterfactual interpretation of history, this movie could have been a shockingly scary document. As it is, it's interesting but deeply flawed.