I’m not usually one to watch documentaries on the Independent Film Channel, and particularly not documentaries under the direction of Spike Lee. But last night I stumbled upon the movie Confederate States of America, and it was both fascinating and thought-provoking.
The premise is that the South won the Civil War, thanks to foreign intervention by the French and British. Confederates took over the entire USA, sent Lincoln into exile in Canada, and then established slavery in the “reconstructed” North.
What’s fascinating is the way it’s framed: it’s a faux-documentary, supposedly produced by a British Broadcasting service, presented as if being shown for the first time on Confederate States of America (CSA) television. As we watch, we view it literally as a modern Confederate would: just like on any television broadcast, there are commercial breaks, where we see news updates, advertisements for slavery-related products, and plugs for other television shows (especially funny is the parody of “Cops,” which is instead called something like “Runaway,” and is about tracking down escaped slaves). The “documentary” traces the history and development of the nation since 1864, with some hilarious manufactured historical footage — often very cleverly doctored versions of actual materials. There is also a modern political candidate who’s an identical twin of David Duke; no idea where they found that actor, but he was cast perfectly.
The problem is that, being a Spike Lee film, it tries too hard to make us believe our modern racial tensions are really not much different from what they’d have been if the Civil War had turned out differently. As the film’s website tells us (in case we missed some of the more ham-handed rhetoric in the movie itself):
We arrive to a today that, in many ways, we recognize. Although a nation that is content and prosperous, there is a tremendous divide within and suspicious eye without. Current politicians refer to us as two countries and perhaps, other than geographically, there is no difference between Red and Blue or North and South states. We have always struggled as to whether we are the United or Confederate States of America.
And, as the the Director explains:
In many ways, the South did win The Civil War. Maybe not on the battlefield, but they won the peace. They won the fight for their way of life. The North changed, not the South. . . . Maybe the history of the “C.S.A.” would not be all that different from the one we have known – some differences, perhaps, but not a complete counter history.
I find this preposterous, and I had a very different reaction. I kept thinking, It is really remarkable how much better our country is than the CSA depicted in this movie. We are incredibly lucky that the Union won the Civil War. Particularly when watching the advertising for slave-related products and other television programs, the contrast with today’s America is striking. I also couldn’t help thinking about Jerimiah Wright’s “God Damn America” and “U.S. of KKK-A” sermons, and why so many Americans find them so deeply offensive: Wright is describing a country in which the South won the Civil War…a country like the one portrayed in this documentary — and that’s a country that does not now exist in reality.
I was also struck by the CSA leaders’ obsession with racial purity and identity, and that was probably the most personally thought-provoking. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, mixed-race marriages and children were extremely rare; I never would’ve dreamed that I’d marry a black woman. Up until 1967, our marriage would have been illegal in several southern states. That may sound like a long time ago, but it was only a year or two before Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I were born. Who could have imagined that less than thirty years later (literally just a generation), we’d be spending the first year of our marriage in one of those states…and welcoming our first child just a stone’s throw from where some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place? And getting only a few funny looks the whole time we lived there?
My sense is that the increasing number of mixed-race marriages is both symptomatic and a cause of the underlying change in race relations that’s taken place over the last generation in this country. Symptomatic because such an intimate relationship cannot take place unless individuals are willing to look past outward appearances and get to know each other deeply as co-equal human beings. The increasing numbers of mixed-race unions indicates, I think, that increasing numbers of people are getting past skin color in just that way. And families like ours are in turn causes of improved race relations in two ways: (1) as an outward sign and signal to others, particularly within families (think of how many people have come into close contact or friendship with members of another racial group as a result of a family member’s marriage); and (2) we’re muddying the gene pool so thoroughly, the practical distinctions between racial groups are dissolving at a rapid pace. Eventually, as one former pastor told us, so many people will be carrying so many traits from so many different groups, we won’t have race hatred because we won’t have races and therefore won’t have racism. That may be overstating things (and, to be fair, I’m paraphrasing his words), but I think the general sentiment is on target. And though we’re far from a completely mixed-race society, the process is clearly underway and already bearing fruit.
To all those who think race relations are unchanged from the 1950s, or that our nation’s history would not be “all that different” if the South had won the Civil War, or that this is “the U.S. of KKK-A”: please stop by our farm, and stay for dinner and some conversation. We’re living in a very different country from the one you’re imagining, and would like the chance to share that perspective with you.