by Ashley Naftule
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America
In the latest installment of “What’s Pissing Off The Internet This Week”, Game Of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss announced that their next project for HBO would be an alternative history series called Confederate that’s about, yep, you guessed it: The South winning the Civil War.
The response from the blogosphere has been about as vitriolic and unenthusiastic as you can imagine. To some degree, the vitriol makes sense: there isn’t much in Game Of Thrones to indicate that either writer/producer has the cultural sensitivity or awareness to not make Confederate a problematic hot mess. But I’ve always been of the “Maybe I’ll be surprised” school of thought: perhaps Confederate will turn out to be an arresting, thought-provoking, well-crafted piece of work. After all, some works of alt-history can be fantastic: the gold standard being Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle (I haven’t seen the show yet, so I can’t vouch for its quality; the book, though, is one of Dick’s finest and most disquieting works).
I do have one major misgiving with Benioff and Weiss’s project: it’s already been done.
Directed by Kevin Willmott in 2004, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America uses a mockumentary format to depict an alternate reality where the Confederate States won the Civil War. Seen through the eyes of a British documentary filmmaker, the film uses two talking heads (a conservative Southern historian and a black Canadian historian) to describe the birth and expansion of this demented American empire.
Willmott’s version of history shows a U.S. in almost perpetual Cold War with Canada, which becomes a place of refuge for runaway slaves who pass through “The Cotton Curtain” for asylum (even Elvis Presley ends up becoming a Canadian refugee). It’s a world where the few remaining American Jews live on a reservation in Long Island, where Abe Lincoln dies in exile and gets mocked by D.W. Griffith in a film called The Hunt For Dishonest Abe, where the “Star-Spangled Banner” gets replaced by “Dixie” as the new national anthem, and where Abolitionism replaces Communism in the 1950s as the big McCarthy scare campaign.
One of the reasons why Willmott’s film is so effective is that it uses humor to really sell the absurdity and horror of this world. The documentary is occasionally interrupted by commercial breaks and cuts to different programming (like a version of the Cops show that focuses on them catching fugitive slaves), like a QVC style slave auction, infomercials for a LoJack style tracking slave shackle, and horrendously offensive chicken restaurant ads. Like the best parodists, Willmott makes these ads and shows look like the real thing – the home shopping slave auction has the inoffensive music and breezy, cooing sales patter of the real deal down cold.
Watching C.S.A. today makes me question the point of HBO’s new show. In less than two hours, Willmott paints a vivid, savage, and occasionally mordantly hilarious picture of a world where the wrong side won. It feels like showing a world like that over the course of an entire season of prestige TV would blunt the impact. Not to mention that a TV show has the luxury to stick a microscope on the most horrible aspects of these worlds (want to see an entire episode from the point of a view of a “pleasure slave”? Hey, it’s HBO – they’ve probably already got that hour of footage in the can). One of the things that makes C.S.A. effective is how it touches on certain horrors in an off-hand way that almost makes them seem even worse. Sometimes a glimpse at a grave injustice can be all you need to feel the horror of it; look at it too long and it turns into a grindhouse spectacle. Instead of feeling the awfulness of the moment, you’re left admiring the prestige TV production values that makes the bloody strips of flesh on a slave’s whipped back look so realistic.
To be honest: it’s also easier to give Willmott the benefit of the doubt because he isn’t a white filmmaker. He didn’t have to worry about whatever privilege-blinkers that Benioff and Weiss may or may not be struggling with as they help get their show off the ground (though they’ll have the help of executive producers Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman to help them get those blinkers off).
And to be fair: Willmott’s film has some rough edges to it. Due to its low budget, its aesthetic does look cheap and noticeably dated at times. And while the cast is willing and game to play this edgy material straight, they don’t leave much of a lingering impression. It’s the kind of film you watch and admire for its story, its writing, and its daring… and not for its cinematography or performances.
That being said: to anyone who thinks alternative history is a dubious proposition, I’d definitely recommend that they immerse themselves in the world of C.S.A.. It’s definitely a shorter (and cheaper) commitment than having to wade through a season one box set of Confederate.