Monday, June 19, 2006

The Confederate States of America

Yesterday (Sunday, as I write this) I went with a friend downtown to see a relatively obscure movie called CSA, dated 2004 but only just in limited release now. It's a sort of alternate history that presumes not only did the Confederacy win the Civil War, but actually overturned the government of the United States with the help of foreign arms, and reconstructed the North. A little far-fetched, but the idea was, I think, twofold: illustrate what a close call it actually may have been, and point out some uncomfortable truths about the legacy of slavery, particularly in the US but really, in the Western world in general.

The movie is set in the current day and purports to be a television documentary (complete with commercials) being broadcast by a television station in San Francisco. The documentary itself is portrayed as foreign propaganda, created by the fictitious British Broadcasting Service. In this history, Britain and America are not allies, in spite of the fact that Britain (and France) were instrumental in helping the South overrun the North in the Civil War. The turning point in history is that a southern diplomat named Judah P. Benjamin, who really lived and who came close to convincing Europe to intervene in the Civil War — at least diplomatically, if not actually militarily — succeeds beyond his wildest dreams and garners military support. The South conquers the North, exiles Lincoln to Canada, and gains ascendency over the entirety of Latin America. Slavery florishes. Canada, in an exaggeration of its historical role, becomes the sanctuary of escaped slaves and abolitionists, to the point that the Confederacy builds "the cotton curtain" along the border, and the Confederacy finally enters into a cold war with most of the rest of the developed world (except for South Africa).

The movie is largely tongue-in-cheek. There are many laugh-out-loud moments (JFK as the Lincolnesque Republican candidate facing off against Democrat Dick Nixon), but a lot of disquieting ones too. Seeing the Stars and Bars over the White House is oddly sobering. It's not so much that you feel it could really have happened, it's the idea of what would the world be like if attitudes in the Confederacy had somehow prevailed (or might yet) and were wedded today to that kind of power. Every so often, one of the interviewees lets slip something you suspect is less about a fictional alternate history, and more about what's really all around us that we ignore or take for granted. Just at the end of the movie, a black professor at the University of Montreal makes a comment about how the legacy of slavery is still with the children of slaves, which seems an anachronistic thing for her to say, given that in the movie, slavery is still a going concern, and you realize she's really talking to us, now, today. That's made very clear when it's revealed at the end of the movie that many of the spurious products advertized in the commercials were real products, many of them sold right up to the 1980s (such as the Sambo's restaurant chain). It's shocking to see a West coast chain called "Coon Chicken Inn", which ushered patrons in through a huge, grinning black face, and be told that it existed in Seattle, Portland, and northern California right up to the 1960s. Slavery might be dead in the literal sense, but the movie really drives home that its reverberations are still with us... even here in "Red" Canada.


Masnick96 said...

interesting how I've never even heard of the movie or saw any advertisement for it in the US...

Polt said...

wow...that's something I'd be interested in seeing. I love alternative histories.

Harry Turtledove has written a series (I think it's up to about 8 or books now) of an alternative history where the South won the Civil War and there was a USA and CSA both on the North American continent. Very interesting.

Susan said...

I was 18 and worked at a Sambo's in Florida. I don't know how or why I didn't find THAT offensive, but I suppose I was just looking to make money.

Years later, somehow I aquired a money clip from the Coon Chicken Cotton Club - with the big grin on the face of what is clearly intended to be an African American, replete with huge red lips and a cap tilted jauntily to the side, like he's just having a ball stepping and fetching for the white man. It's amazing how ignorant and incompassionate we can be to certain groups of fellow human beings, isn't it?