The Second Civil War

Facing the facts in slavery satire's rewritten history

Kevin Willmott's scathingly sharp CSA: The Confederate States of America opens with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh: otherwise they'll kill you." The truth in question is the legacy of slavery, which despite its massive implications for American culture, nevertheless remains underplayed in popular histories. Consider, Willmott suggests, the case of Gone With the Wind. "All the slaves are happy to be slaves, and the birth of the Klan is in the film," he says. "There's a lot of horrible stuff going on in that movie, couched in romanticism. All people remember is the romance, but a plantation is a concentration camp. We need to start accepting the full ramifications of that."

After developing a screenplay about the life of abolitionist John Brown, Willmott discovered that the mainstream film industry hadn't ventured much further beyond Gone With the Wind. Slavery pics, the conventional wisdom went, were box office poison. But while watching Ken Burns's series The Civil War, Willmott hit upon another strategy: a mock documentary set in a world in which the South won and slavery continues to this day. "I like to call what we did not so much a 'what-if' but a 'what-is,' " Willmott explains. "My goal was not to speculate about what could have happened, but to show what did happen." Thus CSA is filled with racist artifacts that seem too outrageous to be true, but aren't: fabricated TV ads for brands like Coon Chicken Inn and Sambo Axle Grease, based on products that persisted into the 20th century.

The film's Swiftian humor and subtle insights also work because they're crafted around the familiar conventions of the Civil War documentary. "People just love the details of wars, specifically the Civil War," Willmott says. "They love to talk about the kind of beans the 54th was eating on Christmas Day in Chattanooga, or whatever. And that's actually a part of the problem. There are a lot of people who know about battlefield memory, about how the war was fought. But they know very little about why it was fought."

 
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