Kevin Willmott, 2004
A British documentary about American history is aired on a San Francisco TV station
in a world in which the South won the Civil War.
It's worth seeing, but I'd suggest that you wait until you can watch it at home. I saw
it in a theater, thinking that it might be so obscure that it would never be released
on video, but I regretted it: the theater was grungy and laughably small, we had to sit
near the front and crane our necks up at the screen, and most appalling of all, the
picture was frequently marred by a huge message reading, "Property of IFC Films. For
screening purposes only. Not for duplication." Look, film industry, you're just going
to have to find a new economic model. This kind of crap won't fly.
Probably the most well-regarded work of alternate history is Philip K. Dick's The
Man in the High Castle, a story set in a world in which the Nazis and Japanese won
World War II. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns the hunt for the author
of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a work of alternate fiction in which the Allies
won the war. When the characters find him, he informs them that his story is true:
the Allies really did win World War II.
When I was researching my seminar paper about this book I
discovered that most commentators seemed to think that since Dick's book-within-a-book
turned out to be true, he therefore must have been arguing that his own alternate history
book is also true and that in some way Germany and Japan did win the war.
I don't think
this argument works, since the book was written in 1962, but in the early 1990s we did
hear a lot of this — "the Cold War is over; Germany and Japan won" — due to
their economic strength at the time. More recently, we've heard some grumble that maybe
the South really did win the Civil War, judging by the people who've been running the
government recently: Bush (TX), Frist (TN), DeLay (TX), Lott (MS), Armey (TX), Gingrich
(GA), Clinton (AR)... as I watched C.S.A., I thought, hmm, you could tell a pretty
good story about a Confederate States of America with this lot in charge and disgruntled
liberals writing alternate-history novels about a world in which the North won the war,
a utopian tale in which Vice President Henry A. Wallace ends the Cold War by introducing
Khrushchev to true socialism, and twenty years later dictatorships around the world fall
as the populaces of their countries follow the example of US President Martin Luther King...
...but C.S.A. is a different movie. In C.S.A., not only has the South
won the Civil War, but slavery is still the law of the land, even in twenty oh four.
So while the "British documentary" traces the path America took during the war (from
Lincoln's capture in blackface, to the co-opting of Northerners by offering them tax
incentives to become slaveholders, the exodus of abolitionists to Canada, to the conquest
of Latin America, to the cold war with Canada in the 1950s and the paranoid hatred of
abolitionist "abbies"), the commercials offer a glimpse of contemporary Confederate
culture. These commercials are way over the top, taking the most insulting of racist
caricatures and applying them to consumer products: Niggerhair Tobacco, Sambo Axle
Grease, the Coon Chicken Inn, Darkie Toothpaste. At first people in the theater laughed
at the commercials, but eventually they realized that these parodies were too broad to
be funny, so the laughs gave way to the occasional "oh, man!".
That was one advantage of seeing C.S.A. in a theater, actually — it was
an interesting case study in forced laughter. For the first fifteen minutes or so,
it seemed like half the members of the audience laughed uproariously not to react to
something that was funny, but to signal to those around them that they had caught the
references. Eventually they got tired of this and the audience quieted down except
for the aforementioned exclamations at the commercials. There was one big laugh-getter
at the end, when a presidential candidate, trying to stave off accusations that his
great-grandmother was a slave, declared, "My great-grandfather did not have sexual
relations with that woman." Har har. And yet everyone bit. Sigh. You would think
that "The Daily Show" would have raised people's comedic standards. Guess they're
still watching Leno.
So, yeah, as the movie was wrapping up, I had to say that I was not very impressed
by C.S.A. But after it was over, instead of the credits, came a message.
It was the same message as the one in The Man in the High Castle:
All of this stuff was real.
Niggerhair Tobacco? Real, as was the box. The Coon Chicken Inn? Real, right down to
the logo, which also served as the door — you walked through the racist
caricature's mouth to get in. And this was in Seattle! Darkie Toothpaste? Real,
sold under that name until 1985, and still called "Black Man Toothpaste" in China today!
Eeeagh! Those images on the left there? Not from the movie web site! I got
them off Ebay!
I heard a snippet of an interview with the creator of C.S.A. on NPR. He was
talking about how his whole message with the slavery business in the movie was that
people can get used to anything and that there's no reason to believe that slavery
would have automatically disappeared from American culture had the South won. He has
a point there. For instance, I suspect that a couple hundred years from now, people
will be appalled by the Coon Chicken Inn both for the "Coon" part and for the "Chicken"
part — is the industrial-scale torture and slaughter of animals any less peculiar
an institution than slavery? Both seemed perfectly right and natural to all but a few
"kooks" not too many centuries ago, after all.
And as for our comfort level with racist caricatures... to those who argue that all
the images on the left have in fact finally disappeared, and so our culture has
at long last grown past this embarrassing episode, I have one thing to say:
Return to the Calendar page!