University of Kansas Professors’ Film on Confederate States Set for National Premiere
“CSA: The Confederate States of America,” a satirical movie by two University of Kansas film professors that examines life after the South wins the Civil War, premiered in New York City Feb. 15. IFC Films and Black filmmaker Spike Lee will release “CSA” in 19 cities during February and March.
Kevin Willmott wrote and directed “CSA,” and Matt Jacobson was cinematographer. Both are assistant professors of theatre and film at KU. The producer was Rick Cowan of Kansas City, Mo., who worked with Willmott on his award-winning 1998 movie, “Ninth Street.”
Described by critics as a “mind-bending mockumentary with a sci-fi twist,” the film assumes slavery is accepted practice in modern society. Willmott has described his satire as probably the most controversial film absent of sex, nudity or violence, because of the topic — slavery.
“In many ways the South did win the Civil War. The North adopted the Southern way of life. When slavery was ended, segregation took its place,” Willmott says. “It was the new way that Black people were controlled.” Willmott notes that American slavery had its roots in the North, not in the South.
“What we try to show in the film is that this was an American problem and in many ways still is an American problem. And by looking at it in terms of the CSA winning the war it puts a new perspective on things,” Willmott says.
Satire and dark humor, he says, allow audiences to laugh at the absurdity but leave theaters with a lot to think about.
Inspired by his belief that Americans, including himself, know too little of the history of slavery and racism, Willmott reconstructs U.S. history through a British TV documentary. The faux broadcast is peppered with commercials featuring products for a society practicing slavery such as a Home Shopping Network for slaves and electronic shackles.
Willmott noted that products are marketed today with images that have their origins in slavery — such as those of a friendly Black aunt or uncle used to sell a product.
“I think the film [allows] you to see things that you see everyday, but you don’t really think about the origins of them,” says Willmott, adding that he hopes the movie prompts viewers to ask more questions.
As a child growing up in Junction City, Kan., Willmott remembered his father’s shock when his son proudly brandished a Confederate flag. Later, as a college student at Marymount College in Salina during the 1970s, Willmott wondered how it was that Kansas, a free state, had practiced segregation into the 1950s. As a professor in Lawrence, a town established by abolitionists, he questioned how it was that racial segregation was practiced in the community and the university.
When he began selling film scripts to Hollywood producers, Willmott learned slavery was not box-office material. Producers reminded him that “‘Beloved’ didn’t do well. ‘Amistad’ didn’t do well,” he says.
IFC Films bought “CSA” when it was shown at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and Spike Lee offered to lend his name as executive producer.
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