Writer-director Kevin Willmott is a film professor at the University of Kansas, and his alternative-history flick about the U.S.A. if the South had won the Civil War is more of an essay than a real movie. In aesthetic terms, it's a total mess. Its historical imagination is jejune; its satire makes SNL look exquisitely subtle. And yet it's so ornery overall and so good in fitful spurts, I had a right passable time watching it stumble to its fairly clever conclusion.
It's styled as a Ken Burns pastiche: a BBC documentary about the rise of the Confederate States of America after France and Britain intervened at Gettysburg. Lincoln fled in disgrace to Canada, schlepped by Harriet Tubman. (Later, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Elvis Presley move north, too, making Canada the swingingest country on the continent, albeit locked in cold war with the C.S.A. for harboring escaped slaves.)
I won't spoil all the satirical historical surprises, but expect a whole different outcome to World War II, a different motive for JFK's killers, and many striking similarities to the real world today. The Watts riots still happen, but the rioters are protesting slavery. There's a reality TV show very like Cops, with white cops rounding up darker-hued fugitives, only their crime is escaping masters and it's called Runaways. The overall idea of this film is better than the film itself. It's inspired to stage The Hunt for Dishonest Abe as a D.W. Griffith drama, with Abe in blackface disguise, but Griffith was a better director than Willmott. Willmott also riffs on Gone With the Wind and I Married a Communist, to equally unflattering effect.
Only the cheesy commercials that interrupt the mockumentary do well, because cheesiness is easy to achieve. The Slave Shopping Network would be just this inane, the Office of Racial Identity spots this chillingly bland, the ads for electronic shackles and "Niggerhair" tobacco this evilly banal, Leave It to Beulah this cruel to black self-image. Willmott's media satire works better than his putative plotting—a bit about a racially questionable presidential dynasty led by slick John Ambrose Fauntroy V (Larry Peterson). Unlike successful alterna-histories (see Robert Harris' Nazis-won novel, Fatherland, and Kingsley Amis' The Alteration, wherein the Reformation never happened), C.S.A. swiftly runs out of even half-baked ideas. The surprise ending provides a kick, but it's nothing political observers haven't been saying for years—that the South really did win the Civil War.