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Ain't Just Whistling Dixie

What if the South had won the Civil War? Kevin Wilmott's sly mockumentary imagines an America that is very different from today's -- or is it?
 
 
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One hundred forty-one years ago today, General Robert E. Lee issued "General Orders No. 9," instructing all Confederate troops to " return to their homes." On the previous day, April 9, 1865, he had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Civil War.

But what if the roles had been reversed? What if it had been Lee accepting Grant's surrender? Certainly, we'd be living in a very different America today -- or would we?

Those are the questions addressed by " CSA: The Confederate States of America," currently showing in theaters around the country. The film presents an alternative history in which the nation that emerges from the Civil War becomes, by the 21st century, an exclusively Christian imperialist power, run by and for prosperous white men and regarded by most of the world as a bizarre aberration. In other words, "CSA" is a work of fiction that's uncomfortably real.

The premise of "CSA" is that the Confederacy, with help from European powers, wins the American Civil War, annexes the Union states and enforces slavery as the law of the land. The film's writer-director, Kevin Willmott, an assistant professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas, tells the story of the postwar Confederacy through a faux "British Broadcasting System" documentary, complete with vintage still photos and film footage, talking-head historians and banjo music.

Broadcast on a present-day "Confederate Television Channel 6," the program is accompanied by racist commercials that you just might see if you lived in a full-blown consumer society in which, as one politician puts it, "a new generation of young Americans is excited about owning Negroes."

"CSA's" appalling words and images are delivered in what's probably the only packaging most movie audiences would tolerate: layer upon layer of outrageous humor. The few times I've viewed the film, most people in audience did manage to laugh out loud, even as they squirmed.

Gloom and passion

Like "CSA" itself, Willmott somehow combines a gloomy view of history and a passion for justice with affability and infectious humor. Last week, in Salina, Kan., I spoke with him about "CSA" and the mirror it seems to be holding up to the USA.

Willmott says he wants to help put to rest what he calls the Big Lie: that the Civil War was simply a war over regional differences, between an old agricultural economy and a new industrializing one. Not so, he says -- the war was fought "because Confederates wanted the right to own African people."

By plunging into that long-standing historical dispute, Willmott knows he's asking for trouble. "People say, 'Well, you know, not very many Southerners even owned slaves. Why would a whole nation fight a war for the benefit of just the wealthy few who did?' But that just makes the Civil War the same as all wars, doesn't it? Most people don't know why we're in Iraq, and it's doing them no good, but there we are."

America and the world have endured some nasty jolts since Willmott first wrote the screenplay for "CSA": Republican efforts to suppress the black vote in 2000 and 2004; a foreign policy that in the eyes of many has become a racist crusade, complete with torture; rising anti-gay and anti-immigrant fervor; the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. That more recent history, says Willmott, has helped bolster one of the film's main themes: that the old Confederacy is far from dead.

Hard-line immigration policies, he says, are an example of modern slavery: "The economic need for immigrants is clear-cut. Corporations need cheap, cheap, cheap workers in big numbers. On the other hand, the country's saying, "We'll arrest you simply for working for us for nothing, arrest you for being poor."

In "CSA," there are no demands to build a wall along the border with Mexico -- it's a CSA colony. Instead, a wall is built along the entire Canadian border, to keep slaves from escaping to the other side of the "Cotton Curtain." But, says Willmott, in a real United States so heavily dependent on immigrant labor, just as in his fictional modern-day slave state, we live with an "invented reality": "Like magic, your hotel room gets cleaned up every day. You know that whoever did that for you, someone you never saw, may be technically illegal. And we come down hard on those people."

For Willmott, the Katrina disaster revealed to Americans the legacy of slavery, in the starkest terms. Like the plight of immigrants, he says, the lives of people in places like New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward are invisible most of the time. "Our society tends to change only when we hit the wall and explode. When that happens, we wake up for a while and say, 'Well, I guess that won't work anymore.'"

Parallel realities

Willmott's documentary may be a work of imagination, but it's concocted from all-too-real ingredients. In the movie, post-Civil War relations between white people of the North and South are eventually healed through recognition of their joint "superiority" over their black slaves. In real history, the North's tacit approval of Southern segregation laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries served the same purpose. Historian C. Vann Woodward described that era in his brilliant 1959 book, " The Strange Career of Jim Crow": "Just as the Negro gained his emancipation and new rights through a falling out between white men, he now stood to lose his rights through the reconciliation of white men."

In the movie, the triumphant Confederate Army conquers most of Latin America (a campaign the real South had planned to carry out in the event of victory), and the resulting dominion over peoples of various colors brings the (white) people of the CSA even closer together. In real history, bloody victories in the Caribbean and the Philippines did the job; in Woodward's words, "As America shouldered the White Man's Burden, she took up at the same time many Southern attitudes on the subject of race."

Of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, "CSA's" true-grey Confederate historian (played by Rupert Pate) says, "By the grace of God, we obtained a weapon that put the entire foreign world of coloreds in their place." Nor was much fictionalizing needed in describing the war on native Americans and their culture; events are depicted almost exactly as they occurred.

In the CSA of the 1980s, a national Family Values Initiative recommends that owners read to their servants the notorious New Testament directive, "Slaves, obey your masters with fear and trembling," a passage that is still cited with approval in some religious circles in the real USA.

Other scenes bring to mind the current Iraq quagmire. For example, the CSA's early-20th century military campaign in Latin America goes far less well than expected; as a Canadian historian played by Evamarii Johnson puts it, the CSA "underestimated the will of the South American people to remain free." In a "clip" from a Hollywood movie about the war, a young Marine lieutenant mourns the loss of his comrades and questions the wisdom of trying to conquer "a whole world of red, brown, black and yellow people." He tells a battled-hardened sergeant, "They'll always outnumber us!" The sergeant growls back, "This world was made for the God-fearin' It's ours, it was always ours -- we just ain't claimed it all yet!"

The two talking-head historians ensure that "CSA" is, so to speak, fair and balanced. While Pate describes as "terrorism pure and simple" a rash of bombings in the 1960s by a Canada-based slave-liberation group, the "John Brown Underground," Johnson points out that "terrorism to one is patriotism to another."

The commercial breaks that punctuate the documentary have at least one foot planted solidly in reality. An "Ask your veterinarian" ad for a prescription drug called "Contrari" features smiling, placid slaves for whom the "little blue pill" gives "all day control." Shirtless black men are apprehended in a promo for a slave-recapture reality show called "Runaway" that looks and sounds exactly like Fox's COPS. An electronic monitoring device called the "Shackle" sounds the alarm "when your property strays from your designated area."

Shock and awe

Willmott obtained $10,000 in seed money from the Public Broadcasting System to start making "CSA," with the prospect of more funding once he had a draft version of the film. But, he says, when PBS representatives saw the draft, they said, "You've gotta be kidding!" After "CSA" awed an audience at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, PBS notified Willmott that, because of the funding the network had provided, it had first rights to the film. So, he says, "We showed them the finished version. They said, 'You've gotta be kidding!'" PBS dropped any claim to "CSA."

The History Channel showed some interest, but Willmott says it too, "chickened out." "They preferred that slavery stay in the deep past." But "CSA" found a distributor (IFC Films), got a high-profile endorsement ("Presented by Spike Lee") and finally went up on the big screen.

Despite, or maybe because of, the film's unpalatable message, reviews of "CSA" have been overwhelmingly positive. One harshly critical exception appeared last month, predictably, on the website of the hard-right American Spectator. Shawn Macomber expressed shock that any director would, as Willmott has done, portray an America that oversees an empire of "puppet democracies," launches an unprovoked, preemptive attack on another nation (Japan, in the film), tolerates Hitler's racial theories and outlaws all non-Christian religions. Macomber seems to regard such policies as inconceivable in the good old USA.

Willmott says negative reactions to "CSA" generally fall into two categories. "Conservatives tend to say, 'This is not our America.'" (That was also President Bush's reaction to the very real torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison.) On the other hand, "The typical liberal response is, 'It makes me feel bad, and I don't like that."

Black pain

The idea that the nation owes reparations to black Americans for having enslaved their forebears has surfaced from time to time but has never made much political headway. Willmott neatly flips the question in the film, having present-day CSA politician John Ambrose Fauntroy V (played by Larry Peterson) demand monetary reparations from Canada in return for "lost labor" -- slaves who'd escaped across the CSA's northern border 100 years previously. Reparations like that would be fully respectable in the current world economic order. "Governments ask for reparations all the time," says Willmott. "But if you can't understand black pain, you can't understand reparations for slavery."

In "CSA," there is a brief moment in the 1960s when abolition of slavery seems within reach, but it's never achieved. In real life, the '60s also brought hope of racial equality, but the succeeding four decades have seen the Republican Party pit working-class white voters against minorities, partly reversing earlier gains. In his 2001 book "Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie," Augustus B. Cochran provided this deadpan explanation of the GOP's success in courting the majority race: "The advent of black participation in the Democratic Party has also been a significant factor in the appeal of the Republican Party for many white voters."

The United States electoral college map of 2004 matches up almost perfectly with the map of mid-19th-century slavery. All former slaveholding states have become Republican "red states" and 17 of the 20 free states (as of 1860) are now "blue." (The map's colors have reversed almost perfectly since 1900, when Democratic-led, pro-segregation state governments were on the rise.)

Meanwhile, from the 19th to the 21st century, the nation's political center of gravity has shifted steadily southward. Cochran cited three "legs" of Old South-style government that have become strong national trends in recent decades. One leg is the increasing irrelevance of political parties, however hot the apparent conflict between them. A second is the narrow electoral base; if people who don't vote (by law in the Old South, by choice today) were counted at the polls, they would be the majority party. And, writes Cochran, "The third leg of the Solid South was a racist political system designed to maintain white supremacy," while today, "Conservatives, by raising the specter of race, divide the potential majority of citizens along racial lines, making a class coalition, and indeed majority rule, untenable."

What's the matter with the USA?

That divide-and-conquer strategy, of course, has led many millions of nonrich white people to vote in seemingly illogical patterns, against their own economic interests -- a paradox tackled in the 2004 bestseller by Willmott's fellow Kansan Thomas Frank: " What's the Matter with Kansas?"

To Willmott, that paradox "is really the point of the film. People always want to look for logical reasons, but majority support for all kinds of things is not founded on logic. The era of Jim Crow segregation was terrible for poor white folks, but they supported it because they could feel they were better than the black folks down the road."

In putting up with a dysfunctional system, the citizens of Willmott's "CSA" are not very different from the real majority in today's America. As Rupert Pate's character explains, slavery was "not an economic necessity"; instead, "our fond attachment to slavery is what defines us as a people, as a nation."

Conventional wisdom says it's the preoccupation with "moral values" that has led many millions of Americans to vote in recent elections against their own economic interests and for the interests of a wealthy few. If that's the case, I asked Willmott, why have most black Americans not bought the scam, voting instead in the interests of the country's working-class majority? After all, polls show that blacks are as deeply concerned about non-economic issues as other Americans, maybe more so.

"Our experience has taught us not to be fooled by what everyone says is good for you," he said. "When you're not included, you have the advantage of being able to stand back and look at things more objectively, from the outside."

The rebels of the South, like the right-wing politicians of today, claimed to be fulfilling the wishes of the Founding Fathers. The "Great Seal of the Confederacy" had at its center none other than George Washington. In Kevin Willmott's film, Washington is hailed as the "Father of the Confederacy," a status the slaveholding Virginian would surely hold in any present-day CSA.

Willmott puts it this way: "America started out as the CSA. Lincoln tried to make it the USA. But we didn't really get the USA for another century, until the Civil Rights movement." Now and for the past quarter-century, he says, America has been trying to decide: "Do we want the CSA or the USA? Americans are divided. A lot of people still don't really want to embrace freedom."

Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kan.