You don't have to be a history buff to enjoy playing the "what if" game: What if Kennedy wasn't assassinated? What if Pearl Harbor wasn't bombed? What if the South won the Civil War? It's that last speculation that writer-director Kevin Willmott milks to a hilarious, cringe-inducing degree in his new mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. As the title implies, Willmott mines two centuries' worth of material, both real and fabricated, to produce a not-so-preposterous alternate universe. In the so-called "C.S.," the first man on the moon plants a stars-and-bars flag in the ground before saying "one small step for mankind." Yankee cities like Boston and New York are burned to the ground, and the country's economy thrives on the "slave economy."
C.S.A. sneaks up on you: You'll find yourself laughing at Willmott's visual trickery, only to realize that the images he's presenting aren't that far from reality. The film is presented like a TV documentary, complete with ads for fake products ("Darky Toothpaste") and sitcoms (Leave it to Beulah). It's all told through "found" footage, newsreels, scratchy audio recordings and faded photographs, just like director Ken Burns' famous PBS miniseries The Civil War, except turned completely inside-out. In this history lesson, the South wins the "War of Northern Aggression," slavery was never abolished, and America embarked on a "divinely ordained quest for world domination."
And if you think this all sounds like science fiction, Willmott brilliantly weaves in authentic images from the last century: Movies that featured subservient black "mammies" and ads for real-life Southern restaurants like Coon Chicken Inn. It wasn't that long ago that ceramic lawn jockeys populated America's homes and the "Little Black Sambo" character was used to sell products; every time you think Willmott has crossed the line into worst-case-scenario fantasy, he throws these artifacts back in your face.
By assuming white supremacy to be a given and not the exception to the rule, Willmott has done a very ingenious thing: He forces us to look at the current state of the nation and wonder if we're really as far from a confederate state as we may think. It helps that his knowledge of film history and technique is pitch-perfect. A remake of the baldly racist silent classic Birth of a Nation this time called The Hunt for Dishonest Abe looks and sounds like the real thing, even if its premise (Abraham Lincoln is tried for war crimes and flees to Canada) is hilariously off-kilter.
C.S.A. isn't seamless. As savvy as Willmott is, the film's budget is too low to convincingly re-create some of the historical clips. A few of the amateur actors used to portray "scholars" are a little stiff, even by documentary standards. But in scene after scene, the director finds creative ways to work around his financial limitations. A movie like this wouldn't be complete without a Gone with the Wind parody, and we get a sappy North-South romance called A Northern Wind. Rather than try to re-create one of the most lavish films of all time, however, Wilmott takes it to the next level, showing a clip of a fake musical based on the fake movie: "You tried to take my blacks, but I must have you back," sings a woman dressed like Scarlett O'Hara. Bad taste? Maybe, but it goes right for the jugular, and Willmott realizes that's the only way to get a point across in this new red-state era.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.