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C.S.A: The Confederate States of America

What if the South never needed to rise again? Imagine, if you will, this alternate U.S. history: Thanks to clever diplomacy, France and England back the Confederacy in the Civil War — and stomp the Union into dust. Slavery is never abolished. Abe Lincoln becomes an Underground Railroad fugitive. (Decades later, his arrest is dramatized as a blackface lampoon by D.W. Griffith.) The newly christened "Confederate States" embark on an expansionist campaign that includes Central and South America. Confeddy flags fly at Iwo Jima and on the moon. World War II ends a little … differently. A century-and-a-half of politics, advertising and pop culture is inflected with casual, unmarked racism. And the Dixieland version of the Kennedy clan, the Fauntroys, finds itself sitting on a scandalous secret. That's the premise of C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) — a rough-edged but incredibly provocative fake documentary produced by Spike Lee and written and directed by Kansas University film professor Kevin Willmott. The film's framed as a sort of mirror-universe Ken Burns doc (only with commercial breaks), looking back critically on a century of Confederate imperialism. Willmott obviously spent some time hanging out in KU's history department: His alternate timeline feels thoroughly thought-out, and it's revealed in a dense weave of photos, letters, old movies, reality-TV clips and commercials advertising products with racist names and cartoons (the ads in particular hit in the same part of the solar plexus as Bamboozled's minstrel bits — expecially when we learn, in a coda, that many of the products actually existed, and were sold well into the 20th century.) The alt-history brain-tickling is outrageous enough to (mostly) cover the uneven production values. C.S.A.'s biggest problem is that the actors in the modern "documentary" footage sometimes play their roles with just a smidge too much mustache-twirling — as if a hearty dose of white guilt were informing their performances as the crackers in charge. It's understandable, but real people growing up in a Confederate nation wouldn't act the slightest bit evil in their cavalier attitudes toward slavery; it would be a fact of life, hardwired into their social DNA. Still, C.S.A. has a love-it-or-hate-it bite that will probably lead to a few passionate post-screening discussions. IFC Films' DVD release of C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America features a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with Dolby 2.0 Stereo audio. Extras include two feature commentaries — one with director Kevin Willmott and producer Rick Cowan, the second with Wilmott discussing "The Reality of Fiction" — 11 deleted scenes with a "play all" option, and a 10-min. IFC short on the film. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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