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April 06, 2006

The North Will Rise Again

Posted in: Film,Race

Walking out of the generally excellent Slavery in New York exhibit, one thing sticks out as strange: in the exit hallway, Abraham Lincoln is once again painted as the great and just emancipator. But we all (or at least should) know that it wasn’t nearly that simple. While no exhibit can cover the full breadth and depth of slavery’s impact, this particular coda still didn’t stomach well.

That’s why it was so satisfying to see Kevin Wilmott’s irreverent yet immensely thoughtful Confederate States of America (CSA) pick up right where Slavery in New York left off, with Lincoln and the Civil War. There’s just one twist: the South wins (and that’s a lot more plausible than some might think). We see Lincoln (in exile) regret not truly freeing the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation (the real proclamation didn’t, either — it merely put some wheels in motion). From there, the film takes a revisionist ride through the last 140 years of American history with slavery fully intact.

What’s fascinating about CSA is that it provides a way for us to think through slavery by placing it in a more modern context and pointing out that humans can convince themselves that even most awful acts are normal and reasoned if it serves them. (Want an example?) One way it does this is by cleverly mixing fact with fiction throughout. We see historical events we remember weaved into into a slavery context (including an inventive edit of a JFK speech). Some of it, though, is saved for a later punctuation mark. I won’t ruin it, but I will say the film bears repeated viewings. Wilmott also mixes difficult material with humor by interleaving serious documentary narrative with “funny” commercials in a way that strikes a tough balance: making the serious material easier to watch and the humorous more difficult.

It’s the best science fiction that saves us the laser duels, spaceships, and feathered hair, instead using a slightly removed context to allow us to better examine ourselves, today. And that’s just how CSA sneaks up on you.

In a recent interview, Wilmott mentioned that we now get more of our history from movies than from books. This is precisely why films like CSA are so important. Spike presents CSA and, while hasn’t taken on such topics since 2000’s abortive Bamboozled, it is nice to see him in the trenches with those to whom he might pass the torch.

For more, see the CSA website, listen through OTM’s interview with Kevin, and have a look at the Confederate Geographic Timeline (spoilers). Also, don’t miss Robert A. Pruitt’s fearless reminders.

image grabbed from csathemovie

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