A Review of The Confederate States of America

I am not sure how many people have seen this film.  It is currently available on Netflx Instant Stream, which is how I saw it.  Now that I have, I am unsure what to think. I admire its vision (not the vision it presents mine, but the thought that went into the film) and the satire against the History Channel and such populist History programs.  It is also effective at showing the racial aggression that still exists in American society, and it is also an effective satire against extreme social conservatism.  What I remain unconvinced (and rather disturbed by) is the actual parallel universe it presents.

The whole joke of the film is that is presents a sort of History Channel documentary examining the “history” in a parallel universe of the United States after the South had won the Civil War and conquered the rest of the United States (wait, what?).  This also serves as my plot recap.  There are also several commercials throughout, showing a racist southern trend to every possible product (including a Leave it to Beaver take off called Leave it to Buehla).

Here is the thing about the Civil War; people in the south eastern U.S. would point out that the war was about economic issues, rather than slavery.  Perhaps, but don’t you think racism was a large part of it?  That is not the problem with the film; the problem is that once the film presents the racial background on this new “Confederate States of America,”  it has very little to fall back on.

I will give you an example: there is a segment that discusses “President Davis'” attempts at answering the question of slavery following the Civil War: he basically creates an income tax that does not have to be paid if the person from the north purchased slaves. This is incorrect on so many levels; a large difference between the two areas WAS the difference in the way that the economies were set up. The south had an agrarian society in place, the north was industrialized.  Merely reinstating slavery would require the numerous industries to be torn down.  Is this difference ever addressed?  No; except in an unsatisfying educational video from the beginning which suggests that mostly freed slaves who had escaped from the south were already working in these factories at the outbreak of the Civil War.  This is only partially correct, not very satisfying, and the subject never comes up again.

It also suggests that many of the leading American intellectuals from the time period (including Twain and Thoreau) fled to Canada.  Again, this is a possibility. Yet there is nothing really gained from mentioning these names: we recognize them and the film moves on.  Wouldn’t it have been better if, say, excerpts from a Mark Twain book on Canada and the War were read?  I certainly think so.

There are also moments that suggest (particularly in some of the commercials) that our treatment of illegal immigrants is analogous with slavery.  Again, there is nothing inherently WRONG with this idea (there is nothing wrong with ANY idea if it is done correctly); it is just an idea that is not given enough time.  We see clips of police rounding up “runaways” and then move.  First off, why compare an enormous national shame with something that, while certainly wrong,  does not have nearly the same impact? Second off, why not let the idea build?  It boggles the mind.

Also, the more it gets into its universe, the more that it retreats from its intentions.  We see Kennedy get elected, fight a Cold War with Canada, and see expansionist activities in Vietnam.  What we do not see is anything about the Russian Revolution (something that surely would have inspired slaves, what with the whole overthrowing of the masters idea) and nothing of World War II (Hitler is shown, but nothing is mentioned about him after the C.S.A. declares neutrality).  Does he still invade Europe?  Does the Holocaust still happen?  They mention it earlier (calling one event an “American Holocaust”) but does the actual one happen in this universe?  What are its effects?  We never know.  By the end of the film, there is more just a glossing over of certain ideas (we get a Bill Clinton joke) and then arrive at an ending that is not particularly satisfying.

That is the problem with the film; it becomes so obsessed with what it is doing that it forgets about its audience.  We are intrigued by what it is doing, and then it forgets all about it and just makes jokes.  I was left with more questions the more geopolitical events were discussed, but the film did not wish to answer them.
The film does have a great gimmick; it should be seen (or portions should be seen) at least once. The problem is, it never transcends that gimmick.  Something like this, better to go for broke.  The filmmakers knew they were going to offend and upset some people.  The film even ends by pointing out that many of the products in the commercials were real; that needs to be addressed. Why play it safe?

Note: I am not including the traditional items I have been trying to include here (clips, images, etc) for two reasons.  The first of which is that, if you are truly interested in the film, you should seek those images for yourself.  My showing them here would diminish their value.  The second reason is that they are all quite racist.  I was offended by a number of the products shown (and am very hesitant to even type their names) but did realize that they fit in well with the overall message.  Still, let the filmmaker do that; I am not going to be the middle man if doing so involves typing the n-word repeatedly.

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