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I come from Lawrence, a college town in northeast Kansas, about an hour west of Kansas City. My town has many points of pride, including the University of Kansas, a burgeoning arts scene, rich regional history and awesome local breweries. But in my estimation, the things we’re most proud of boil down to KU basketball, our town’s abolitionist heritage, and Kevin Willmott.
Most people outside of Lawrence know about our basketball team. Some people know a little about our town’s role in the pre-Civil War “Bleeding Kansas” era, when Kansas’ impending statehood—and its potential status as either a “free state” or a “slave state”—was violently contested. Not as many know about Willmott. But they should.
Willmott is a KU film professor and a filmmaker, most notable for his recent collaborations with Spike Lee, with whom he co-wrote both 2015’s Chi-Raq and BlacKkKlansman, out this week. But the beginning of their cinematic partnership came in 2004, when Lee produced Willmott’s historical revisionist mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America.
Shot in Lawrence, and featuring several local actors (as well as non-actors), C.S.A. paints an alternative picture of an America in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. It’s presented as a live TV broadcast of a Ken Burns-style documentary, interspersed with racist advertisements for products like “Darkie Toothpaste,” a restaurant called “Coon Chicken Inn” and a classic sitcom called “Leave It To Beulah,” about a black servant who solves a white family’s problems. All of them are meant to provide a view of what contemporary life is like in the world Willmott’s posited.
As we learn through the “documentary,” in the Confederate States of America, slavery is still legal. The abolitionists pulled up stakes after the war and moved to Canada, while the C.S.A. expanded its empire, first West, then South into Mexico and South America. Instead of a cold war with Russia, there’s mutual distrust of Canada and a “cotton curtain” erected along the northern border. Instead of Gone with the Wind, there’s “A Northern Wind,” a play featuring a southern belle who falls in love with a Yankee soldier.
But C.S.A. is far more than just an exercise in alternative history. Willmott’s a razor-sharp satirist, and the film slyly hints, before pulling the rug out from under the audience at the end, that there’s not a huge difference between the world of the movie and contemporary America. While there are plenty of absurd, funny moments, the main thing you experience while watching the film is a sinking feeling. In our national narrative, we like to tell ourselves that the “good guys” won the Civil War, but Willmott reminds us time and time again that no matter who came out on the winning side, America has still always been a country operating under systemic racism.
Take the C.S.A.’s imperial expansion, which grows to include violence against Native Americans, enslavement of Asian immigrants and the segregation of South American Countries. On the surface, it looks like the reprehensible actions of an unchecked racist government, now believing they’re entitled to whatever they want. But it’s merely a warped version of America’s real-life Westward expansion, which also included violence against and cultural destruction of Native Americans, and mistreatment of Asian immigrants.
Or, look at the movie’s depiction of a romanticized view of the Civil War in the wake of reconstruction. In the film, one of Willmott’s talking heads says Civil War romanticism removes slavery as the true cause of the war, and simply looks at it as a fight between two great cultures, one of which “lost its way.” Apart from the fact that here, reconstruction takes place in the North, there is no real difference in this case—Willmott’s pointing out that this has become our culture’s predominant view of the war.
But perhaps the most damning point is the revelation that many of those racist ads sprinkled throughout the movie were for actual products, some even worse in real life than they appear on screen. What we first see as an illustration of how deeply warped ideas of dominance, entitlement and ownership influence this fictional world’s modern culture becomes the exact opposite. We’re shown, directly, how those same wrongheaded racist ideas have influenced, and continue to influence, us.
C.S.A. presents an interesting document of the beginning of Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee’s professional and artistic relationship. But it’s also a film that feels especially timely and prescient right now. Over the last several years, we as a country have only just started reckoning with what some people have known for years: that the attitudes that brought about the Civil War have never really gone away, and in fact have been not-so-secretly festering for centuries. The more honest we can be with ourselves about our history, Willmott tells us, the better equipped we’ll be to deal with our present.