Tuesday, October 31, 2006

the confederate states of america

In keeping with the Halloween theme, I'm going to talk about a film with a rather frightening premise. I recently saw The Confederate States of America which is a fictional "mock-umentary" about what would have happened if the South won the Civil War (er.. the War of Northern Aggression) and slavery continued into 21st century America.

south moon 2

The film definitely had its high points, but to be honest it was not very impressive. The historical logic wasn't very persuasive. For example, originally, the South fought in order to secede from the Union but in the film, the South actually takes over the North. Not only that, the Confederate States of America then expands to the south and eventually absorbs Latin America as well. But to be fair, in the DVD interview with Kevin Willmott, the film's writer and director, he makes clear that the film was more about metaphor than historical realism. In our country there has always been a tension between the democratic, egalitarian, just principles of the "United States" and the racist, exclusionary, hierarchical, expansionist tendencies of the "Confederate States". Wlilmott's film was intended to provide a satirical look at those "Confederate" tendencies by taking them to an extreme.

For me, the most impressive aspect of the movie were the fictional commercial breaks which featured blatantly racist ads for things like the Coon Chicken Inn, Sambo motor oil or Niggerhair cigarettes. The "punchline" is that most of the ads (including those just mentioned) represent REAL products which were sold in our United States into the 40's and 50's.

Another of the more impressive commercials was a promo for a show called "Runaway" (clearly based on Cops). In the C.S.A, most vibrant expressions of Black culture had long since migrated north to Canada, so the reggae theme of "Bad Boys" was replaced by an upbeat song with more of a country twang. But there were still the same images of Black and Latino males running from white men, being restrained by officers, having guns pointed at them, etc. The obvious suggestion was that the police are just modern-day slavecatchers.

It reminded me of a spoken word piece by Detroit poet, Versiz where he describes an encounter with a traffic cop who stopped him and asked:
"So, do you know why I'm pulling you over?"

I asked if he wanted the short answer or the long one. He of course chose the wrong one so I had to give it to him. I had to give it to him the way they always give it to me. With no vaseline and with a straight face.

So I told him... "You are pulling me over because there was a corrupt system set in place used to manipulate and control the underclass through fear and intimidation, a system that you are an agent for. Now, whether or not you know your role remains to be seen so I guess the most important question is: Dude, Do you know why you are pulling me over?"

I couldn't help but smirk as I was being dragged out of the vehicle.

Of course it is fairly easy to cite other examples of artists and political writers who see similarities between the police and the prison industrial complex on the one hand, and slavery and other forms of oppression on the other. (But that's a meaty subject in itself and I'll have to explore it over several posts)

For other treatments of alternative history:
For Want of a Nail
The Guns of the South
Harry Turtledove
Bring the Jubilee
The Man in the High Castle
It Happened Here


Dynamite Soul said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dynamite Soul said...

As salaamu alaikum,

I saw the movie, but it was kind of a bummer because I had already researched the vast majority of those racist products, for the exception of the motor oil. A lot of those things can be found at the Jim Crow Museum while others can be found on websites which sell vintage food labels and containers.

Still, I think this movie is good for those who had no clue how careless and irresponsible White people were, and how the stereotypes portrayed on thousands of items still affect most Americans to this day.

DA said...


Dude, I see this movie at Hastings all the time and it has always looked completely retarded to me, like a Henry Turtledove book made into a film or something. However, your description sounds interesting, I think I'll rent it tonight.

Incidentally, about ten years ago I was in Silver City, NM, and was looking at all the antique shops there. I was amazed how many racist tins and product ads were still around, like "Sambo" and some brand of Chocolate Milk with a little black kid (with giant lips) rubbing his belly and sayin "Ain't dat zumptin!". Man, I can't believe that even when my dad, a fairly young guy, was a kid, that stuff was still around.

Not being 100% yankee myself, I've always had an issue with this wierd idea of a virtuous, egalitarian North and a Barbaric, evil South. It's just not an accurate reading of history by any good measure. I'm not one to brush over the issue of Slavery (and this seems one potential problem of the film; once the CSA acquired an industrial base as the North had, it would not be in their interests to keep the slave system as such intact), in fact John Brown is one of the greatest heroes of all time in my mind....But the whole urban elite intellectual tradition were not bleeding heart abolitionists, just as today they're more interested in their own social issues than actually helping exploited people.

I'll stop here before it turns into a full on rant :-)

Anonymous said...


thanks for all the amazing links you've been putting up.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

I haven't read any Harry Turtledove but I'm thinking of bumping him up a few notches on my reading list.

And to be honest, the production values for C.S.A. aren't supergreat so if you rent the movie and end up not liking it, please don't ask me for a refund....lol....

I agree with your point about the morality of the North v. South. It is my impression that the C.S.A. film and the Turtledove are good at avoiding that particular trap.

In terms of slavery continuing into modern times, to be honest I could imagine a number of different possibilities. It is most likely that slavery wouldn't have lasted, for the reason you gave.

At the same time, if slavery got mild enough I could imagine it surviving for a longer period of time.

(In the film, slavery gets a boost as a way to get the country out of the Great Depression).

Hood said...

I just saw this recently as well, and was equally disappointed. The production was not all that great, and the storyline (however mocked up it may be) was not that good either.

There was alot of historical factors that were ignored in the civil war part of the show, and didn't really show the true light of the North as pertains to Slavery (it was much less benevolent than people think). The part about Jefferson Davis modeling himself in the image of George Washington was good, but I'm not sure if most people would get it.

The south was poised to end slavery, not because they felt that slavery was wrong, but because indentured servantry and serfdom-like plot farming was just more economic. For the master to let his slaves live off the land and give him a portion was better than for him to take care of them himself. And of course law would still protect him, regardless of whether they were slaves or not.
But as we know, even after the war the north bent to economic pressures and Jim crow laws effectually achieved the same end result that they were looking for in the first place.

In the end of the day the civil war was more about economics (as we know from the Lincoln quote in the film as well as other evidence) and not only about slavery and injustices.

How could it have been, when the majority of both the religious and scientific communities believed Africans to be sub-human? Euro-centric history makes a leaping bound from Greco-Roman empires to the Rennasaince. The (continuous) suppression of African contributions to civilization, as well as the appearance of intelligent Africans in that period that broke the stereotypes, is witness to that.

Even this mockumentary fails in this department, because even though we are entertained with the "commercials" and the bluegrass music for "runaway" (which was a nice touch, in that bluegrass is a very hillbilly type music) we still don't see the flip side that was alluded to: the contributions of Africans to Canadian culture instead. Imagine if they spoke of the scientific acheivements of African Americans never happening in america? Certain advancements would not have allowed America the industrial ability (and thus the economic ability) to invade south of the border. Instead we get this sad allusion to entertainment!?