< The North Will Rise Again


Friday, February 17, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: "CSA: The Confederate State of America" opened this week. The film imagines America had the South won the Civil War, which is not so absurd a scenario as it may sound. Had British and French forces come to the aid of the Confederacy, as they at least contemplated, the military outcome might have been very different. With that as a premise, filmmaker Kevin Wilmott presents a weirdly plausible version of American history. Under the Confederate States of America, Abraham Lincoln is captured, in blackface, trying to escape to Canada, reconstruction picks up the pieces of the shattered North, and slavery is the law of the land. It all plays out in what looks like a Ken Burns documentary, complete with slow pans of still photos and talking head historians. But it's not on public TV, and the commercials that punctuate it present a hilarious and disturbing look at the contemporary consequences of this historical "what if." Kevin Wilmott says he didn't even have to dream up every detail of the "CSA," some of them sprang from actual consumer goods and retail businesses. [FILM CLIP] [MUSIC]

MAN: That's the power of Dark. Mm-mm, Darky!

MAN: For a shine that's jigaboo black! [END FILM CLIP]

KEVIN WILMOTT: So, you know, you've got products like Darky Toothpaste and you've got the Coon Chicken Inn, and you've got thousands of products with Sambo in the label. It was a normal part of American life. There are still some of those around today, though. There's still products that have slavery kind of based imagery that sell them.

BOB GARFIELD: You're talking about Aunt Jemima - [OVERTALK]


BOB GARFIELD: - syrup and Uncle Ben's Converted Rice. But I got to tell you, it was jaw-dropping to see at the end of the film a photograph of the entrance to a Coon Chicken Inn somewhere in the Midwest where you, to enter the restaurant, you actually walk through the mouth of a racistly-drawn Pullman porter.

KEVIN WILMOTT: Yes. Yeah, that's a pretty shocking one. But it's important to remember that it's not abnormal. That was not a family of racist people that did that. That was just ordinary American citizens at the time. And that's the thing that I hope "CSA" kind of does, is shows how anything can become normal. You know, people say, well, would slavery still exist today? Well, anything can become normal if you work hard to make it a normality.

BOB GARFIELD: I couldn't help but notice that the arguments forwarded by the proponents of slavery in your film eerily echo some of the rhetoric in our current state of affairs -


BOB GARFIELD: - the constant harping on patriotism and security and Christian tradition. Was that intentional or just kind of a bonus of - [OVERTALK]

KEVIN WILMOTT: [LAUGHS] It's not intentional. I think it's the arguments that you hear today are just not new arguments. They come from the same kind of "CSA" thinking, in my opinion. Throughout our entire history, it's been this challenge of what country do we want to be, the United States of America or the CSA? So the "CSA" becomes, for me, anyway, a metaphor that's bigger than just the issue of slavery. I think slavery is the root of it all, that creates it all, but it takes on these many different forms.

BOB GARFIELD: The documentary within your film is done in the style of a Ken Burns documentary, complete with the Southern historian posed before his bookcase full of, you know - [OVERTALK]


BOB GARFIELD: - of literature. [FILM CLIP] [MUSIC]

MAN: There were many who were clamoring for Mr. Lincoln's execution also, but, but President Davis understood that sparing Lincoln's life would ease tensions in the North. A wise man, he was already looking to the future. [END FILM CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD: Within the film, you have constant references to the popular culture at certain points in Confederate States of American history.


BOB GARFIELD: My particular favorite was from a pretend 1946 RKO film called "The Jefferson Davis Story" --


BOB GARFIELD: -- in which a key historical [LAUGHS] role is played by someone you call renowned Shakespearean actor Sir Frederick Littlefield. He is playing the house slave, essentially the butler, in blackface. [LAUGHS] [FILM CLIP][MUSIC]

MAN: Must find a way to bring the North into our way of life. If I don't, it may spell disaster.

MAN: Master President, may an old no-count darky like me axe a questions? [END FILM CLIP] [LAUGHTER]

BOB GARFIELD: Now, there were many little bits of parody throughout the film, one beautiful takeoff on the TV show "Cops."


BOB GARFIELD: What was it called?


BOB GARFIELD: "Runaway." [LAUGHTER] It was about officers of the law chasing down, pursuing and capturing runaway slaves.


BOB GARFIELD: But then there were a series of TV commercials, including one that absolutely perfectly mimicked one of these cheesy, you know, cable at 3 am commercials aimed at morons. It's not for the Clapper. It's for a product called the Shackle. Let's listen to that. [FILM CLIP] [MUSIC]

MAN: Introducing the Shackle, the revolutionary new way of servant monitoring. Just place the Shackle around his or her wrist, and when your property strays from your designated area, in minutes the authorities have your chattel in custody. [END FILM CLIP] [LAUGHTER]


BOB GARFIELD: And, you know, it's done complete with idiots overdemonstrating the use of the Shackle.


BOB GARFIELD: So it happens that as a cinematic technique, you rely heavily on fake old movies and fake TV commercials and other artifacts of the popular culture. How crucial were they to spinning this tale of near reality?

KEVIN WILMOTT: I wanted it to be a modern tale. And we get our history from movies far more than we do books nowadays, and, you know, growing up as a kid, I saw all those all movies and the ones we satire in the film. And it's a funny way to do it, you know. I loved - the movie "Zelig" was a big influence on me with this film. You know, taking those clips and finding the right little moment to share from these Hollywood films was a way for us to, you know, make the documentary real and to make it humorous, hopefully, and to also reveal some hidden history as well.

BOB GARFIELD: There was one passage in which we see documentary footage of John F. Kennedy talking about slavery.


BOB GARFIELD: And it was definitely his voice.


BOB GARFIELD: I mean, it was seamless.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free. In giving rights to others which belong to them, we give rights to ourselves and to our country.

BOB GARFIELD: I'm trying to figure out how you pulled that off.

KEVIN WILMOTT: [LAUGHS] Well, we were very lucky on that one. Kennedy, for black folks, was like Abraham Lincoln. He was loved and admired because he was interested in civil rights. And the thing that we found was a speech he made about the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Then we found in the Kennedy-Nixon Debate where he talks about slavery, but he's actually talking about the threat of Communism. And then my editor was able to put it together and make a few little adjustments, and it just knocked us out of our seat. And those are the things that I think makes the film so special. We didn't want to wink at the camera and kind of make you go we're all just kidding, this is all just tongue-in-cheek. We want it to really kind of give some discomfort, for it to be real enough that you really have to question things a bit, and hopefully the film does that.

BOB GARFIELD: Kevin, thank you very much.

KEVIN WILMOTT: Hey, thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Kevin Wilmott, an assistant professor in film studies at the University of Kansas, is the writer and director of "CSA: The Confederate States of America." [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had engineering help from Rob Christensen and all kinds of other help from Mark Phillips and Anni Katz. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads, and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.