(IFC) Charles Frank, Rupert Pate, Evamarii Johnson, Larry Peterson, Harvey A. Williams, Arlo Kasper, Robert Sokol. Directed by Kevin Willmott
There are watershed moments in history that are so significant, we are often prompted to ask “what if” those moments didn’t go the way they actually did.
The fall of the Confederacy is one such moment. Writers like Harry Turtledove have speculated on what the world would look like if the South had won the Civil War. Here, director Willmott gives us a look in a highly original method. Inspired by Ken Burns’ influential PBS documentary “The Civil War,” he posits a British documentary on the history of America that goes counter to what the Confederate government has taught its people and asks questions that the government doesn’t want the American people to consider.
In this version of history, Judah Benjamin (an actual historical figure) convinces England and France to come to the aid of the South, supplying troops to help Robert E. Lee overwhelm the Union army at Gettysburg. As a result, the Confederacy wins the war and conquers Washington DC. Abraham Lincoln (Kasper) attempts to flee north to Canada, aided by Harriet Tubman. They are caught, Tubman summarily executed and Lincoln sent to a military prison where he languishes for two years before being pardoned and exiled to Canada, where he lives in bitterness until his death in 1905.
The film is narrated by Frank in a dry manner that nails what you would hear in actual British documentaries. Much of the information is communicated by a pair of historians from opposite sides of the coin; Confederate historian and apologist Sherman Hoyle (Pate) and Patricia Johnson (Johnson), a Canadian historian descended from American slaves who fled to the Great White North. There is also John Fauntroy V (Peterson), a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party descended from one of the founders of the Confederacy and whose family has achieved Kennedy-like status in this alternate universe.
A further conceit is that the documentary is being transmitted on broadcast television for the first time, and there are commercials interspersed for products, many of which I won’t repeat here because they are so offensive. However, many of them are actual products from American history and those that aren’t, like a website for online slave auctions, might well have been.
Director Willmott is an academic, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and displays an academic’s perspective, which leads to an overly dry sensibility at times. Still, he also has a deft hand at satire and when the movie is at its best, it is genuinely funny and thought-provoking. However, the movie can be scattershot; when the movie isn’t working, it can be awfully uncomfortable. This may well be on purpose or to help us examine our own attitudes towards racism. In any case, no less a personage than Spike Lee has put his stamp on the film, whose name is attached to the film as a “Spike Lee presents” type of thing.
This isn’t for everyone; the production values here aren’t exceptional and the acting can be a mixed bag. Still if you look at the big picture, the movie has plenty to offer and there’s nothing wrong with checking out a movie that makes you consider your own values somewhat.
WHY RENT THIS: There is some genuinely cutting satire here and when the movie works, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: When the movie isn’t working well, the viewer feels more uncomfortable than amused.
FAMILY VALUES: Younger sorts may not understand that this is a satire and not an actual documentary. There is a good deal of racist invective (necessarily, given the subject matter) that may be disturbing to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The faux D.W. Griffith movie The Capture of Dishonest Abe includes footage from actual D.W. Griffith movies.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Flags of Our Fathers