Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.
Early in C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, Ulysses S. Grant surrenders the Civil War to Robert E. Lee. The Confederacy declares victory over the Union: Jefferson Davis ascends to national power. And American chattel slavery is allowed to persist into the present day.
That’s just the beginning. C.S.A., a 2005 film written and directed by satirist Kevin Willmott, is a mockumentary in the style of the Ken Burns epic miniseries The Civil War. It’s a mix of movie clips, historical photographs, and the talking-head expertise of, among others, a pair of contemporary historians—one white and pro-Confederacy, the other, well, black. According to the experts, the minute the Confederacy defeats the Union, Abraham Lincoln becomes a fugitive. He tries to escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad with the help of Harriet Tubman, who persuades him to make the journey using a disguise that defined the era: blackface. When Tubman and Lincoln are caught at the border, Lincoln’s face is covered in burnt cork, like a minstrel—an event so sensationally strange that D.W. Griffith apparently makes a movie about it. Tubman is executed, meanwhile, but as a balm to the North’s hurt feelings, Lincoln is spared. He’s exiled to live out the rest of his days in Montreal—a better fate than getting shot in the head, no doubt. But what about the country he leaves behind?
C.S.A. was clearly designed to incite conversation: From the start, its premise is knowingly dangerous. Not only does this movie posit a rewritten history of American slavery, it also imagines a future in which the entire world order has shifted. And through its mockumentary, made-for-TV style, it suggests what changed most—and also least—was culture itself, all the signifiers and mythologies that republics come up with to define themselves. The movie has a deliberately bland public-television aesthetic, with ads, PSAs, and news alerts frequently interspersed throughout. C.S.A. imagines an alternative world in which the Home Shopping Network is the Slave Shopping Network, and one in which the first man on the moon plants a Confederate flag. There are commercials for stuff with real-life correlates: Modern slave shackles look like ankle monitors, and reporting black people suspected of passing for white is the work of a new form of neighborhood watch.
As much changes as doesn’t. The eerie challenge of the movie is sussing out what’s real and what’s fiction. How real or not, for example, is the ad for a restaurant called Coon Chicken Inn? (Very real.) The uncertainty of it all is what’s gotten the movie into trouble. In 2014 the Dalton School in New York faced criticism for screening the movie after students, apparently unaware that the film is a satire, complained that it was racially insensitive. The head of the school walked it back, expressing regret at showing the film to begin with. Willmott, meanwhile, has alleged that one of the actors from the movie, who plays a racist Confederate politician, lost his job as a VP at Time Warner when a clip of his performance was shown at a work event. For Willmott, who’s been dealing with these reactions for almost a decade, this was par for the course. “I got a lot of hate mail from conservatives, Confederates, and racists,” he later said, “but I was censored by liberals.”
C.S.A. received a modest release in 2005, playing in only 28 theaters at its peak. It recently reemerged amid debates about an upcoming HBO show with a similar, if less outright satirical, premise. Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were reported to be collaborating with Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman on a project called Confederate, a show set “in an alternate timeline, where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution,” according to HBO’s July announcement.
When the news dropped, the internet reacted with swift skepticism, sometimes outrage. In a New York Times piece headlined “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fanfiction,” writer Roxane Gay noted that while she didn’t want to place artistic restrictions on the showrunners, “creativity without constraint comes with responsibility.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, meanwhile, pointed out that the Confederacy itself was already a counterfactual history, a set of lies the South told itself about itself—with Hollywood’s help. “For over a century,” he wrote, “Hollywood has churned out well-executed, slickly produced epics which advanced the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. These are true ‘alternative histories,’ built on ‘alternative facts.’”
Critics have wondered who such a show might really be for. “African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that that ‘history is still with us,’” writes Coates. This is true—but I’d like to think that by examining how it is such racist history persists, art might still make a worthwhile contribution to the conversation. Perhaps, if the Confederacy is a myth, it can be undone through a pointed application of other, competing myths—the kind that can be generated by only satire, say, or science fiction. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was our nation’s first blockbuster; Gone With the Wind is as familiar to our national culture as the Confederate monuments we’re currently tearing down. Both movies are, in fact, monuments in their own right. And what a satire like C.S.A. can do that HBO’s show may not is chip away at their foundations. The “South” of C.S.A. is not merely what falls below the Mason-Dixon line. And the Confederacy the movie imagines is not just a place delimited by its politics. The Confederacy is an idea, and that idea encapsulates not only the South, but also the entire nation.
In a recent interview, Confederate’s Tramble Spellman wondered, “What happened in the entire world if that one event had ended differently?” It’s a question the HBO show is apparently poised to explore; C.S.A., Willmott’s film, has already given us one option. After the Confederacy and the Union reconcile, they work to become a superpower, invading South and Central America to drive out the Spanish and openly extinguishing the Plains Indians before enslaving Chinese immigrants in places like California. By the time of World War II, the “American Way” of racial supremacy is so totalizing and influential that Hitler is almost convinced he should keep Jews as slaves, rather than exterminate them. The Confederate States and Germany band together during the war. Bombs still get dropped over Japan to end the war, but this time the goal, we learn, is to “put the entire foreign world of coloreds in their place.”
Willmott has claimed that his movie is an attack on a symbol: “I really made the film to get rid of the [Confederate] flag,” he said. The movie proceeds as an open rebuke to the charge that the Civil War was about anything but the perpetuation of slavery and, accordingly, white supremacy. All pretension of a war fought for any other reason gets scrubbed away as soon as we learn that the Confederate States’ first venture, as a unified nation, is to oppress racial others. Twenty-thousand whites are said to flee to Canada, including Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Henry David Thoreau. The heart of the American intellectual class—all gone. Black descendants of slaves either remain slaves in the C.S. or live out their lives above the border. Black authors like Richard Wright and James Baldwin aren’t living in Harlem, but rather in places like Montreal.
The funny thing is that black expression still defines the culture of the C.S. There’s still an Elvis around to rip from black music, for example: Rock ’n’ roll still has its roots in the blues. And black slang still inflects popular culture—even more so, frankly, given that this is a culture selling things like Darkie toothpaste and Sambo motor oil (both of which really existed) late into the 20th century. Blackness, as a form of expression, is still fundamental to American life. And through Willmott’s painfully ironic lens, the whole thing is delightfully kitsch. The facade of the movie is openly corny, even funny.
And yet it’s also overwhelmed by a stark, bitter sense of violence. There’s still a Reconstruction era, for example, and it still coincides with the mass lynchings of blacks for decades at the turn of the century. This time, though, it’s coordinated, and not limited to the South. In Willmott’s movie, what we typically call the South really accounts for an entire nation. Culturally, there is no easily delimited North versus South; there’s strictly America. “It’s the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that desegregates the schools,” Willmott has said, with a sense of irony. “How did Topeka become segregated—didn’t the North win?” He has a theory: The South lost, but “the South”—a set of ideas about racial supremacy that, despite being associated with one region, were already endemic to the entire country—did not. “After the war, the South taught the North their way of life–it took another conflict, the American Civil Rights movement, to bring the CSA into the USA. That fight continues. There was never a victory over the South, more of a cease-fire like North Korea and South Korea.”
The movie ends with an index of sorts, laying out all the bits of history and culture that, despite seeming like satirical exaggeration, actually existed in this country, in brands as well as in art. Since the slavery era, it’s been the tendency of Northern liberalism to absolve itself. That’s a mistake. Willmott’s movie deftly argues as much, examining the overarching commercial drive, not limited to any one part of the country, to shape the national consciousness through political narratives and representation. Willmott has devised a movie that riffs on the familiar languages of public television, Hollywood, and commerce, exposing their participation in a national lie—and our willingness to believe it. It’s the kind of lie only art can expose. But only if we let it.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.