- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

Marvel Comics began a “What If” series in the 1970s that showed what might have happened if the stars had aligned differently for its costumed heroes.

What if Captain America became president? What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?

The bizarre scenarios that ensued in those tales come to mind while watching “CSA: The Confederate States of America.”

The new mockumentary — and get any hilarious, “Spinal Tap”-style thoughts out of your head — transports us to an alternate universe in which the South triumphed during our Civil War.

It’s a fascinating premise, and an equally brilliant point of departure for social commentary, but the filmmakers squander both in their obsession with the South’s “peculiar institution.”

In the CSA, slavery never went away. Instead, it became entrenched north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, and eventually spread to include Chinese-Americans as an added work force.

Along the way, America’s values rotted to the point where we worked alongside the likes of Adolf Hitler.

Told as a documentary from a British production team, “CSA” begins with the South successfully lobbying Great Britain and France to help fight the Union Army. The influx of troops turns the war’s tide in the Confederacy’s favor, ensuring slavery’s perpetuation and transforming President Abraham Lincoln into a war criminal.

Honest Abe hops aboard Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad — in blackface, no less — to escape retribution but is quickly apprehended. The notion is as comical as it is provocative, and it’s also the only time the film’s humor rises to the laugh-out-loud level.

Writer/director Kevin Willmott promptly careens through our alternative history, a land where “Dixie” is the national anthem and pre-emptive strikes against Japan take the place of Pearl Harbor.

“CSA” takes frequent faux commercial breaks — often to pitch products with slavery themes — but they’re never as funny as the average “Saturday Night Live” parody.

We watch a teaser for a sitcom called “Leave It to Beulah,” watch a “Cops”-like show called “Runaway” and learn about a magazine called “Better Homes and Plantations.”

Strip “CSA’s” shock value away and you’re left with little beyond its meager production values and satire that bites with baby teeth. The amateurish performances remind us how little “CSA” must have cost, but dollar signs needn’t have bankrupted the film’s wit.

“CSA” does a decent job re-creating the smug atmosphere of your typical documentary, but it also relies too heavily on a pair of talking heads, as if they were the only two they could find.

The film wraps by revealing that some of the products hawked in those fake spots actually existed for decades after slavery ended. The epilogue suggests the filmmaker’s true purpose: to hint we never left the shackles of slavery far behind us.

“CSA: The Confederate States of America” leaves us with a “what if” of our own.

What if another filmmaker grabbed its provocative premise and did it justice?

**

TITLE: “CSA: The Confederate States of America”

RATING: NR (Comic violence, potentially offensive racial humor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Kevin Willmott.

RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes

WEB SITE: www.csathemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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