By Adrienne LaFrance
Picture an alternate 2006 in which the internet slave trade in America is an integral part of the economy, only white men have the right to vote, and culture is devoid of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and countless other things. Head to Fenway and you’ll hear the national anthem, “Dixie,” played before watching your favorite team—whose name is probably based on a racial slur.
What sounds like a nightmare is the elaborate alternate universe cooked up by Kevin Wilmott for his mockumentary film, The Confederate States of America.
The premise is inherently powerful. What would the United States (and the rest of world, as a result) be like if the South had won the Civil War? What’s presented fringes on funny for how absurd it seems, but remains horrifying for how far from absurdity it actually is.
Wilmott delivers his hypothetical reality in a daring and chillingly imaginative fashion; a History Channel-style glimpse at the would-have-been past, complete with what looks like old footage, contemporary interviews, and the commercials that would appear between.
Some of the fictionalized elements seem overdone when the senselessness of slavery can speak for itself, but Wilmott’s approach may reach viewers that would otherwise lose interest in a topic that people often try to ignore or forget.
“It’s like you’ve got to look dead into the mirror and no one wants to do that,” Wilmott said in an interview after the film’s initial release. “So, that’s what the movie challenges us to do.”
In Wilmott’s version of American history, Lincoln was never assassinated but tried to escape to Canada (with Harriet Tubman’s help) after losing the Civil War, before being exiled there by the government. Viewers even watch an interview with “Lincoln” as a jaded old man musing about what the country could have become.
There are excerpts of a would-be scratchy black-and-white silent film, “The Hunt for Dishonest Abe,” in which Lincoln—donning his classic top hat—disguises himself in black face as he tries to evade persecution for war crimes, accompanied by whimsically chaotic piano melodies that evoke Charlie Chaplin slipping on a banana peel.
In this alternate 2006, the Office of Racial Identity, a federal department, scours the nation for “racial impurities,” and faux old photos show a friendly visit Adolf Hitler made to the White House in the 1940s to discuss his “Final Solution. ”
The film is effective because it doesn’t just run wild with imagination. It converges important points of accurate United States history with elements of the invented history of the Confederate States of America. For example, according to Wilmott’s timeline, Neil Armstrong still walks on the moon, but plants a Confederate flag. Susan B. Anthony still successfully leads women’s suffrage, but does so in Canada (American women fruitlessly fight for the vote in the 1960s).
The pledge of allegiance to the Confederate States of America echoes reality right down to a disturbing alteration in the last sentence, “with liberty and justice for all white people. Amen.”
In C.S.A. history, the political witch hunt of the 1950s had nothing to do with communism. Instead, the nation was gripped by fears of abolitionists in “Red Canada,” not “commies,” but “abbies.”
The Confederate States of America depicts a society that normalizes slavery. We see a QVC-like network called “The Slave Shopping Network,” hosted by a bubbly woman who starts out by saying, “Let’s talk slaves!”
Commercials advertise for an education with the “Cartwright (as in Samuel) Institute for the Study of Freedom Disorders” like “drapetomania,” (the “disease” causing slaves to want to flee). A spot for the nightly news warns of slaves trying to overnight ship themselves to Canada via shipping company ConEx, and promotes a televised execution.
For as scarily imaginative it is, this film doesn’t let the United States as we know them off the hook. Many references (like Samuel Cartwright’s scientific racism) are real. Commercials depict slave imagery that was used in the very recent past, and the narrator reminds us that some even exists today, “Just ask Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.” Wilmott addresses this topic in interviews on the film’s web site.
As upsetting it is to see a version of American history with modern-day slavery so seamlessly fused with our own familiar timeline, one of the most jarring aspects of the movie is considering what prejudiced line of thinking or course of action from today people will look back upon with similar disbelief.
The Confederate States of America may be focused largely on the past, but it will leave you thinking critically about the future. Whether or not you like the way this message is delivered, you can’t ignore its importance. This film forces viewers to open their eyes to the past (and present) of a racially divided America, and it’s something everyone who sees it will want to talk about the moment the credits roll.