A Historical Path Less Traveled, and the Differences Made
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Satire via sledgehammer, Kevin Willmott's fake documentary about an alternative American history, "CSA: The Confederate States of America," opens with a quotation attributed to George Bernard Shaw. "If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they'll kill you." Another version of that same quotation opens Wesley Brown's novel "Darktown Strutters," an exploration of minstrelsy and identity hinged to a 19th-century Kentucky slave named Jim Crow who becomes a dancer in an all-white show. Mr. Brown ends the Shaw quotation with the admonition "make them laugh"; for his part, Mr. Willmott keeps the threat intact, which warns of a far heavier hand at work.
Taking the form of a British documentary, produced by the familiar-sounding British Broadcasting Service and narrated by one of those insufferable know-it-all twittering voices, the film purports to tell the history of the Confederate States of America, starting around the period of Ulysses S. Grant's famous face-to-face with Robert E. Lee. This time, though, it's Grant who surrenders to Lee, allowing the South to rise permanently again and create a parallel America that at times deviates wildly from the historical record and, at other times, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the world we know. As the Confederate flag waves, Lincoln dies of old age and D. W. Griffith makes a movie ("The Hunt for Dishonest Abe") about the disgraced president's escape attempt by Underground Railroad and the good graces of a doomed Harriet Tubman.
And so it goes: history repeats itself, this time as farce. As the years pass, more slowly than necessary, Reconstruction gives way to the Depression and beyond amid a flurry of faked and authentic documentary and entertainment bits. Talking heads fill in the supposed blanks as do the copious phony commercials that break up the slow march of time. Although Mr. Willmott's approximation of both Griffith and classical Hollywood leaves much to be desired, he does a credible job of miming the hard sell of cheap television advertising. Most of the commercials are too on the nose to be really funny, though an ad for a series called "Runaways," clearly modeled on the reality show "Cops," elicits a pained laugh because it gets at the original's inherent racism with such ease.
"CSA: The Confederate States of America" is being presented by Spike Lee and, in many respects, feels like a companion piece to "Bamboozled," his 2000 satire about a black minstrel television show. Like Mr. Lee's hit-and-miss effort, Mr. Willmott's alternative history takes its inspiration and its rage from an America that has come both a long way and not nearly far enough. But while the filmmaker's anger is palpable it's not very inspired. (Riffing off such exhausted conceits as fake documentaries and commercials doesn't help.) Unlike Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel "The Man in the High Castle" and Philip Roth's 2004 novel "The Plot Against America," both of which envision a terrifyingly different course for World War II, Mr. Willmott's film rises to the bait but not the challenge.
CSA: The Confederate States of America opens today in Manhattan.