Free-Floating Hostility

Monday, August 21, 2006

Chattle Hymn of the Republic

The opening sequence of CSA is a fake commercial, shot in the style of those old SNL parodies after the monologue. It's an insurance ad, with a white guy watching his cute blond daughter fall down as she plays on the lawn. She's OK and he looks relieved. The slogan, "Protecting American families," the announcer says as the camera pans over to a black man trimming the hedges, "and their property." And so it begins.

We are all witty and urbane people with healthy senses of irony, so we're supposed to use term "heavy-handed" as criticism. But sometimes a film so successfully sells overkill that you can't help but admire it. CSA is a mockumentary, one that explains what happened after the South won the Civil War. We rented it primarily because of the blurb on the box from someone named Matt Zoller-Seitz of the New York Press, which read, "It's like Jean-Luc Goddard directing a screenplay by Dave Chappelle."

About a decade ago I saw commericals for a film called White Man's Burden, which takes place in bizarro America. Blacks are the cultural elites/cops/rich guys and whites live in bleak urban ghettos. I suspected the premise of that film was itself fairly racist. Sure, the intent was to make you ponder the arbitrariness of racism. But it was still designed to jolt you with the site of Harry Belafonte as the CEO being kidnapped by John Travolta, speaking Causonics.

In CSA, director Kevin Willmott spends very little time poking you with a stick trying to prove how intense he is. What he creates is a new version of normal, using all the tricks of moviemaking. He includes fake historians telling the story of the Confederacy, cultural artifacts like movie clips shot in the styles of the day (the D.W. Griffith take on the capture of Lincoln is especially brilliant) and altered newsreels. But the commercials really bring the message home, showing the cultural norms. There are products named for slaves and PSAs from racial purity squads. There is also the spoof on Cops where the point of the show is to track down runaway slaves. Still it works, illustrating a total dystopian America.

It's not perfect satire. The final 10 minutes seem to get away from the previous tone, when the scion of a powerful slaveholding family gets his commupance. The film seems to ask, is racism, economics or a sadistic desire for power over other human beings the root of slavery? The answer: yes.

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