Things Could Have Been So Different: It's Hard to Recognise Confederate or Eco-Friendly America

Article excerpt

CSA: the Confederate States of America (12A)

dir: Kevin Willmott

Who Killed the Electric Car? (U)

dir: Chris Paine

A warning at the start of CSA: the Confederate States of America advises audiences that what follows may be unsuitable viewing for children and servants. This is the first of many culture shocks in a faux-documentary that reconstructs the history of America as it would be if the civil war had ended differently.

In this version, Abraham Lincoln went on the run after the Confederacy's victory at Gettysburg had been sealed by the co-operation of British and French forces. President Jefferson Davis's first move was to give tax rebates to slave-owners, ensuring that slavery spread to the north. Intent on becoming the most powerful empire in the world, the CS next conquered South America. And in 1939, it stopped just short of helping Hitler realise the Final Solution, but only on grounds of waste: why exterminate all those Jews when they could more usefully be put to work?

The deeper the picture wades into the 20th century, the more chilling its conjecture, from the construction of the Cotton Curtain, an impregnable wall, designed to separate the CS from abolitionist Canada, to America's alliance with South Africa. The premise is influenced heavily by It Happened Here, the 1966 film that imagined British life under Nazism, but the makers of CSA inject their own brand of toxic humour by breaking every 15 minutes to show the kind of advertisements that would be commonplace in this parallel America.

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Plugs for Nigger-Hair Cigarettes and the Coon Chicken Inn--both of which did exist--are mixed in with commercials for a drug that renders obstinate slaves docile ("Ask your veterinarian about it today") and the parcel courier service ConEx. The film is at its most scalding when this alternative world overlaps with our own. A government appeal for the public to inform on "persons of questionable racial identity", and a trailer for a reality show called Runaway, in which cops hunt errant African Americans, are too close for comfort.

Written and directed by Kevin Willmott, CSA is billed as "a Spike Lee presentation", which won't harm its chances at the box office. But Lee's involvement only reminds you that he visited this subject in his angriest film, Bamboozled (2000), about a modern-day minstrel show. …