Review #62 of 365
Film: C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2005) [NR] 85 minutes
When 1st Seen: 13 March 2006
Where Viewed: Starz FilmCenter, Denver, CO
Time: 5:30 p.m.
When I first heard about the Spike Lee-presented film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America when it was originally released last fall, I thought the concept—depicting American history for the past century with the twist of what it would have looked like if the South had won the US Civil War—was intriguing. I had no idea, however, how truly unnerved and uncomfortable the film would make me feel upon actually seeing it for the first time. Written and directed by Kevin Willmott, C.S.A. is a mockumentary made to run like a British BBC documentary of the history of America from the time when Abraham Lincoln was forced to flee the country with the help of Harriet Tubman and seek asylum in Canada immediately following the Confederate army’s capture of Washington, D.C. complete with some sickeningly realistic commercial breaks featuring a sampling of racist products that actually existed and some new ones which have been extrapolated based on this alternate historical timeline. Replete with interviews of mock-experts on the revised history and its global impact and family members of the Confederate reigning political dynasty known as the Fauntroys, C.S.A. commands a perturbing and discomforting sense of realism. As I watched the film unfold, I grew increasingly uncomfortable for some very unexpected reasons. For one thing, I am one of those people who feels that while the USA has come a long way in our reality, yet we have not come far enough and certainly not fast enough. We are still a fractured, stratified nation. Real equality for all is still a long way off. So, I am generally open to any movie that helps citizens of the USA to see where we need to push ourselves to grow and change and move toward the founding ideals of our Constitution. My growing discomfort, therefore, was not due to disbelief in the problems presented by the film. Rather it was due to wonderment created when I started to think about the prejudices and stereotypes that were used to create the film. The film hinges on the notion that there was/would be in the future a common set of principles/doctrines/philosophies espoused evenly by all southern citizens of the Confederacy and that they would have been able to transport these uniformly to all white citizens of the north once the war was won. After the war, the film suggests that the solution to getting the north on board ultimately would come with tax relief for those citizens who chose to buy slaves (sort of a slave tax credit).
The more I began to think about this, the more it troubled me. It simply isn’t right to prescribe one common set of values over an entire region of people. To presume that because a person was born in the southern USA they would automatically subscribe a particular philosophy and emerge a racist proponent of slavery is not justifiable. The capacity to do so, in my view, is the same capacity that allows a person to become a racist in the first place. If a person is capable of subscribing characteristics to a particular individual based on outward physical appearances, knowledge of a person’s religious affiliation, gender, heritage, etc. then that person is capable of being prejudice. Perhaps we are all capable, and the struggle therefore becomes in not exercising the capacity. I would maintain, therefore, that this was a dangerous avenue for the film to travel without taking the time to address this more completely. In effect, the film fell victim to the very same problems it is trying to call out on others. Believe me, I am no fool as to not recognize that there are still plenty of racists and prejudice people in the USA. My goodness, when I stop and look gender bias in the USA I am nearly dumbstruck. How many professional sports leagues for women have been started and remained successful? How many people watch the NCAA Final Four for men vs. women? How many professional female racecar drivers are there? Why do we have a best actor award and a best actress award for the Academy Awards® instead of just best Performer? Why has there never been a woman who won the Best Director Oscar®? I apologize for unfairly picking on professional sports and the Academy Awards®. The truth of the matter is that gender bias is still raging in the USA—my goodness, people nearly faint at the idea that we might have viable, female head of state candidates in the next general election. The USA is well behind the rest of the world in this area where there have been female heads of state for centuries. In any case, the point I am trying to make is that despite all efforts to make progress on the basic issue of equality for all citizens in the USA, we have an incredibly long, long way to go. But, I do not feel we get better by labeling or projecting the sins of the past onto the future generations. We cannot say that because some white people were slave owners 200 years ago that all or many white people today would either think this was ok or would still be practicing slave owners today.
For hope and change, first we need to recognize that children are not born with inherent racist or gender biased ideas. This has been proven time and time again. It must be, therefore, since nature does not control this, that we control it through what and how we teach our children. We must work as the teachers, parents, guardians, and (yes, Charles Barkley) role models for future generations to strive and eliminate our prejudices so they are not transferred. We must raise daughters to be racecar drivers, fire fighters, presidents of companies, governors of our states, directors of our Best Pictures, president of our country. Likewise, we must raise our (meaning the nation’s) children to believe in the best capacity of all of our citizens and not fill them with the biases of the past related to stereotypes or historical inaccuracies related to religion, race, ethnic heritage, color, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I find myself trying to evaluate this film from that point of view. Does the film do this? Or, quite the contrary would people who have the capacity even in this day and age to rank the races in the world into levels of superiority watch this film and think, “Wow, this would be so great. Pills you could give your slaves to keep them docile and not run away!” (this was one of the fake commercial products developed for the film that did not actually exist)? If so, then I would say the film is a failure. People who do not have this capacity are not going to get much out of the film except feeling sick to their stomach at thinking that the world could have turned out this way were it not for some pretty good luck. Are people with the capacity going to change after seeing it? Doubtful. Sadly, it might even reinforce some of their beliefs. I do hope that most people who see this film will say, “Thank goodness the south did not win the war if this is how it would have turned out,” however, I feel it is not justifiable to presume that the rest of the events that followed would have gone the way depicted. Doing so, in my summary opinion, is simply prejudiced in and of itself. The North won, and we still have massive inequality, prejudice, and bias in the USA. So, to presume that if the South had won, things would have gone as badly as depicted is unfair. Things might be worse, or the pressures placed on the new nation could have caused swifter change and more lasting progress than we have now. Maybe a better concept would have been to depict that last 150 years if a leader had emerged in our nation that was actually able to rid our nation of prejudice, hatred, and bias to see what kind of nation we might have become were we not spending so much time hating and fearing and contemplating the actions of those who are different from us be they our neighbors across the street or across the sea. What could we have done in the last 150 years had we used the billions and billions of dollars spent on trying to protect ourselves from inside and outside threats working instead to understand the ideological conditions that promote people to believe what they believe and working to comprehend the ways to blend and harmonize, understand and respect, cultivate, motivate, value, and enjoy the diversity in all forms present on our planet? Might we have world peace? Might we have ended the starvation of children? Might we have equality? I think I would have found that a more useful film.
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C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America [DVD](2004) DVD