They said the South would rise again. What they didn't say is that the South never fell in the first place. Its values, including its thoughts about slavery, lived on after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. And they're with us to this day, conditioning the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, for example. Anyway, that's the conclusion I drew from Kevin Willmott's racially charged, endlessly fascinating faux documentary, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which imagines what the last 140 years of our history would have been like if the South had won the Civil War. A history professor at the University of Kansas, Willmott has found a whole new way to reach students, with an elaborate put-on that could easily pass for the latest PBS seminar from that ol' banjo-picker, Ken Burns.
The conceit is that we're watching a controversial documentary ' Viewer Discretion Advised ' put out by the British Broadcasting Service. It's been kept off the air for two years, but the San Francisco affiliate of Confederate Television is finally running it, with commercial interruptions. Those commercials, for products like Sambo Axle Grease and shows like "Runaways," which is "Cops" without the Emancipation Proclamation, are like "Saturday Night Live" parodies, only with more bite. But it's the documentary proper, a gradual unfolding of our country's history since Jefferson Davis took over as president, that all but takes your breath away. Full of familiar faces, many of them now slaveholders, it's both utterly strange and strangely familiar.
Consider Abraham Lincoln, captured and convicted as a war criminal, then exiled to Canada, where he lived long enough to appear in a short film that might have been shot by Thomas Edison himself. Later, instead of Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith would come out with The Hunting of Dishonest Abe, a two-reeler about Lincoln's attempt, via blackface, to elude his Confederate captors. In the wrong hands, C.S.A. might have seemed like a glorified parlor game, something to do when Willmott should have been grading papers. But he's definitely thought everything through. And he's done a wonderful job, especially given his budget limitations, of capturing the look and feel of the sources he's supposedly drawn on. Finally, by focusing on how bad things might have been, he's reminded us how bad they are.
Like the documentary series that kept the wine-and-cheese crowd glued to their TV sets, watching the Civil War amble by, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a major achievement, history disguised as comedy. Dave Chappelle must be kicking himself for not having thought of the idea first.