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'CSA' raises real questions with a bogus documentary

Kevin Willmott's ersatz documentary ''CSA: The Confederate States of America" is an act of provocation that's sheer genius in its conceptual simplicity. Fairly unoriginal, too. Writers and historians have been penning ''what-if" scenarios predicated on the War Between the States going the other way for decades; I recall MacKinley Kantor's ''If the South Had Won the Civil War" on my elementary school reading list years ago, and more recent authors such as Harry Turtledove and Roger L. Ransom have addressed the matter as well.

Willmott isn't interested in academic niceties. He wants to make you laugh and hurt at the same time, and then he wants you to think. So his film -- ostensibly a British documentary being aired on a local San Francisco station -- opens with an ad for Confederate Family Insurance, complete with a happy white family, soothing banjo music, and a smiling young African-American slave tending the garden. What follows is nothing less than a satiric takedown of our assumptions about racial progress.

Presented by Spike Lee and constructed as a finely tuned parody of the Ken Burns school of filmmaking (period music, old photos, talking-head experts), ''CSA" sketches out a disquieting alternative history of the United States. It begins with the South winning Gettysburg thanks to the appearance of French and British troops alongside the Confederate Army, Europe's intervention having been won with the assistance of diplomat Judah Benjamin. (This prompts Jefferson Davis to later say, ''Don't you evah forget, suh, that it was a blood-sucking Jew who saved this country.")

In Willmott's acid telling, Lincoln escapes with the aid of Harriet Tubman, but is captured wearing blackface and exiled to Canada, where he's followed by the cream of the North's intelligentsia. Emerson, Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony -- all pull up stakes and head for the border. The vibrant Confederacy pushes into Central and South America and creates a vast empire of Christian whiteness, and since it wouldn't do to enslave the Mexicans, a system of ''apartness" is instituted. Separate but equal, you know?

It goes on. The CSA stays neutral in the European theater of World War II -- we agreed with Hitler's racial theories, after all -- but attacks Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, enlisting male slaves to fight in the 129th Fighting Bucks in exchange for a freedom that's never granted. During the postwar era, strained relations with ''red Canada" and the burgeoning John Brown Underground based in that country lead to the raising of a 3,000-mile concrete wall called the ''Cotton Curtain" and the filming of such Hollywood propaganda movies as ''I Married an Abolitionist."

And still it goes on. Kennedy was assassinated for threatening to emancipate; women never got the vote; the riots in Watts were slave rebellions. Eventually, Willmott tries to tie his film into the present day with a neat bow of political outrage. A presidential candidate named John Ambrose Fauntroy V (Larry Peterson), the descendant of a key post-Civil War figure, is rumored to have questionable ''racial identity" and is forced to publicly insist his great-grandfather ''did not have sexual relations with that woman."

That's an easy shot, and ''CSA" is full of them. As a coherent, well-judged alternative history, the movie's a mess. As a thought-provoking and frequently hilarious jeremiad, it scores again and again, never straying far from its essential point that the South did win the Civil War to judge by the failure of Reconstruction, civil rights abuses, and a disenfranchisement that continues to this day.

At times, Willmott's a more skillful polemicist than he is a filmmaker. The fake D.W. Griffith silent movie that re-creates Lincoln's capture is witheringly exact, but parodies of movies from the '40s and '50s aren't as convincing. The advertisements that pepper the ''broadcast" are a mixed bag, too, with the worst approaching the smug obviousness of ''Saturday Night Live" skits. Who'd really believe there could be such products as Darky Toothpaste or a restaurant chain called Coon Chicken Inn?

Well, uh, we should. Willmott waits until the very end of his tour of the supposedly alternative past before dropping his final bombshell: Until the post-World War II era, those were all real products.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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