For some, it will be difficult to know when to laugh during C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, Kevin Willmott's sharp political satire. Masking its biting humor behind so much serious tenor, C.S.A. will go over some people's heads, while others are sure to be offended by Willmott's in-your-face take on racism.
C.S.A. builds itself around the premise that the South won the Civil War. The Twilight Zone-like concept of alternative histories has been a major part of fiction for ages, but from a cinematic standpoint, few chronicles have been presented with such a well-balanced mix of believability and brutal, no-holds-barred satire. Presented as a legitimate, Ken Burns-style documentary produced in England—complete with commercials and news breaks—C.S.A. charts the history of a nation where Grant surrendered to Lee, and "Dixie" has become the national anthem. Abraham Lincoln was never assassinated; instead, disguised in blackface, he fled Confederate troops with the help of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. In this world, Lincoln died in exile in Canada and, a historian explains, "Today he's only remembered as the man who lost the War of Northern Aggression."
Grounding much of his fictional world in historical truth, and playing it primarily with straight-faced seriousness, Willmott deftly manipulates his audience to the point that it becomes difficult to separate what's real from what's not. During the "commercial" breaks, Willmott goes for some his biggest laughs, with ads hawking products like "The Shackle," a device used to keep slaves from running away, and Darkie toothpaste, "for a shine that's jigaboo bright." Most unsettling is that Darkie toothpaste and products like Sambo axle grease were once real brand names, demonstrating that the racist make-believe world of C.S.A. often parallels the racist real world of the U.S.A.
The America chronicled in C.S.A. is, in many ways, vastly different: Slavery never goes away, becoming the driving force of this America's economy. The government of the C.S.A. allies itself with Hitler, whose policies of racial purity are in line with its antebellum thinking. But in other ways it closely mirrors the country we all know and love, only a little more extreme. As a nation, Willmott's C.S.A. is racist, sexist, homophobic and intolerant of religions other than Christianity. In this imagined America, notions of white superiority and privilege are out in the open, not disguised. But in our America, the slavelike conditions that exist in the prison-industrial complex are only slightly less reprehensible than the global slave trade of the C.S.A. The differences between reality and fantasy are negligible.
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America contains equal parts brilliant comedy and astute social commentary. It is as funny as it is thought-provoking. And for those who pay close enough attention, it is as much a fairy tale of how things could have been in this country, as it is a revelation of how things actually are.