C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, conceived and filmed by Kevin Willmott and presented by Spike Lee, is a mockumentary--that is, a film designed to spoof various historical television documentaries, especially work in the vein of that of Ken Burns. An extended contemplation of what it would have meant to the western hemisphere if the American South had won the Civil War, C.S.A. was ostensibly made by a British company and is replete with the requisite commercials of a television production. These are sometimes as innocuous as the one featuring a father who protects his family with Confederate Insurance and as insidious as the one advertising a bracelet designed to let modern day paddyrollers know the exact location of any "buck" who dares to run away.
Following other established patterns, the film includes talking heads--a black woman and a white man--who shed light on the actions being narrated and who put the history in perspective (chosen, the filmmaker asserted in a Birmingham premier, to mirror historians Barbara Fields and Shelby Foote in one of Burns's films). The black female scholar is Canadian, while the white male commentator, with his consistent lamenting of and apologies for the good ole days, appears to be an American of the traditional stripe. The Canadian connection is significant, for Canada is represented as the progressive, integrated society that its neighbor to the South has woefully failed to become. In Canada, blacks, fully integrated into the culture, have achieved grand things in society and the professions, while their counterparts to the South are still cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children. This selection of Canada evokes an historical pattern for African Americans, one in which, when northern escape attempts were stymied by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, they proceeded into Canadian territories and established communities there. Such communities are still in existence in places such as Nova Scotia.
In a series of vignettes, with the thread of a single white family's involvement in slavery holding the film together, C.S.A. moves through scenes of slavery, war, Reconstruction, imperialist expansion, domestic crises, imagined post-slavery slavery, and contemporary politics. Commercials offer viewers ways of keeping their slaves docile (including behavior-altering pills in more contemporary times), aids to their cleaning work (the Gold Dust Twins), pleasure whose logos are identified with blacks ("Niggerhead Tobacco"), toothpaste commercials ("Sambo Bright"), advice on tracking blacks suffering from the dreaded runaway disease ("draptomania"), employment opportunities in "Slavery Illnesses," a television auction in the vein of the Shopping Channel (in which an entire family can be purchased together or separately), and a host of other equally offensive--though at times humorous--plays on the misery of enslaved persons.
C.S.A. shamelessly and humorously rewrites history to achieve its objective. Abraham Lincoln, for example, is portrayed as defeated and, in an attempt to escape his potential Confederate captors, calls upon Harriet Tubman, the consummate liberator, to get him to free territory. She agrees to help him by asserting, "Mr. Lincoln, we's both niggers now." Lincoln dons blackface, and the two begin their escape. However, in a scene reminiscent of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, in which captions on the screen and jerky camera movement carry the action, Lincoln and Tubman are "smelled" out by a trusty Confederate who wipes the makeup off Lincoln. Caught in such an ignominious position, Lincoln is exiled to Canada, where, shortly before his death in 1905, he gives an interview expressing regret that he could not free blacks in traditional America.
In another rewriting of history, abolitionists who learn that the South has won the war and who realize that they can no longer work successfully toward the liberation of blacks in America migrate to Canada. …