KEVIN WILLMOTT - Revealing American history in CSA: The Confederate States of America
"One of the main reasons why I wanted to make the film is because the Civil War's still going on in America. There's still many people that want to hold onto the Confederacy as this great concept that had nothing to do with slavery. But if you honestly look at history, and you read books outside of battlefield books, you quickly find out that it was all about slavery. So that's the chief reason why I wanted to make the film, to finally give the history of America from this other point of view. The Confederate flag still flies over the State of Mississippi, over the State House. You still see it on a lot of people's cars and trucks. You still see Hollywood making movies that celebrate the Confederacy, in various ways, as a sad, lost cause. A great civilisation gone with the wind, as Gone with the Wind calls it. But from the slave point of view, there's nothing civilised about it. "
How difficult was it to fund CSA: The Confederate States of America?
"We ran into some opposition, big time. We really funded it ourselves. We got a small grant from The National Black Programming Consortium and then we just kind of went to friends and family. We found one investor and it took us about three years to make the film. So we just did it the best way we could with the limited resources that we had. That's okay. That's a reality I expect when you're doing something that the system - I hate to use that term - but the system doesn't want to see you do. So you've got to be honest about it and go, ‘Okay, I'm going to have to make this movie somehow on my own.' But it's been a real, beautiful thing, because the discussions we've had have just been incredible. People have made all kinds of different connections to the film. It just opens people up to a whole host of issues and ideas. People relate to the CSA history with their history, which could be a whole different history, like the Israeli and Palestinian thing. There's so many different connections you can make. Here we are talking about putting a wall between Mexico and America now, and we just had it in the film [as a wall between America and Canada] as a joke. They've also been putting a wall up in Israel. The world's big on walls these days, you know?"
PBS gave you seed money but didn't give you any after they'd seen the script? What scared them off?
"Well they've been really honest about the fact it's just too controversial. And I appreciated their honesty about it. A lot of times, we run into things with the film and no one's honest enough to tell us, ‘You're dealing with things that are just too hot and we're afraid we're going to offend somebody.' What I love is that there's no bad language, there's no sex, there's only historical violence in the film, and it's too controversial? Wow, dull American history is too controversial. So the stuff that puts most people to sleep you can't put on television. It just lets you know we still got a problem."
The History Channel also refused to show it, didn't they?
"That was the most disappointing because that was supposed to be a conversation. A debate. But they showed a documentary a couple of years ago about the Confederate flag and they caught so much flack from those people. And those people that watch the History Channel, a lot of them are those battlefield memory people. They watch those documentaries about the Civil War and they don't want to talk about the causes because that's no fun. I thought it was a really fine documentary. It wasn't just saying the flag is wrong, it showed both sides. It was here's this one group that believes one way about the flag, here's this other group. But the fact that you have the other group is the problem [laughs]. It's something that's not even worth debate. So I think the History Channel wasn't even in a position to have an honest debate about it, because a lot of the bread-and-butter comes from those, and I'm just going to say it, red necks, that like to watch those kinds of programs."
It's a fascinating film but as a non-American, I wasn't always sure where historical reality and your imagined reality parted ways. Are Americans always sure themselves, or is the fact that the one is not always distinguishable from the other the point?
"Well a little bit of both. It varies about how well we know our history, which is part of the problem in a way. We tried to use history that was pretty general. There's some specific characters we mention in the film that a lot of people don't now much about, but our important figures, in terms, I think, of understanding the concepts of our film, are well known. What we hoped for was to use what I call ‘historical signposts', kind of the big events that happened in American history and most people know about internationally. There's clearly some things that are very specific, but the big overall point of the film is the Confederacy did win the Civil War. So hopefully by telling a fake history, you tell the real history. So I think your feeling that way is kind of part of how the movie's supposed to work."
Is what you're talking about an American crisis of identity?
"No doubt about it. 9/11 made a lot of issues come forward that have made Americans question who they are and how they want America to work, and what democracy means, big questions like that. And so, you know, the film really kind of poses it as you've got two Americas. And we've really always had two Americas - the USA and the CSA - and the CSA is that other America that we can choose to be. We've chosen to be it many times in our history, and I think 9/11 has made us go even more towards the CSA in ways. So that's the idea."
I'm sure that the negative image of America you paint in the film will appeal to a lot of Europeans in the sense that it reinforces many of the negative opinions people have about the country, albeit it in a satirical register.
"It's nothing new really. For an African-American, we've had to deal with the CSA all our lives. Many of us look at it like the more you understand about the victims of American history the more you understand what American history's all about. What the film tries to do as well, I think, is make you relate to the CSA from the slave point of view. It puts slavery central to what the CSA means, so you can't look at Gone with the Wind and just get caught up in the romance. Suddenly you look at Gone with the Wind and you see how slaves are treated and how slaves act in that film. I think it's just one of many examples, hopefully, the film gives of showing there's this other reality going on [laughs]. And the more we relate to that other reality, I think the more we know what's maybe going on in the world."
I read that you first had the idea for the film 20 years ago. Is it really that long?
"Well, yeah. I think the thing that came to me a few years ago when we got started on it was finally how to do it in a form where I believed it - the structure and the format of the movie, the fake documentary, from the point of view of the Confederate Television - and the fact that I discovered that the Confederacy did have an actual plan, had they won, to do all these things [build an empire in Latin America, for example]. Those were the big revelations that kind of defined the film for me. I wanted it to be real for people. I wanted it be uncomfortable.
"I love the film Dr Strangelove and the thing I love about it is there's never any comedy at the expense of the truth. There are rarely bits in the film where they're just trying to make you laugh. The humour comes from the absurdity of the Cold War and nuclear weapons and all of that stuff. That's what I wanted to do with this, to have the humour come out of the reality of slavery, of the reality of expansionism, and the CSA mindset that still exists, and the link between the CSA and the USA. So the idea had been around a long time but I didn't know how to do it. I didn't know how to take the idea of what if the South had won. I think a lot of people had had that idea."
Yes, there have been a few books based on it.
"I avoided all of them. For me that wasn't the point. I didn't want to give a battlefield kind of history of all this, about Generals and how that would have turned out. I think that's actually part of the problem with the Civil War in America, that people love to talk about the battles but they hate talking about slavery. But slavery is the thing that still defines us today in America. It defines our understanding of race still in America. We still understand each other based in a lot of weird concepts left over from slavery. So, all of that, once we really found a way to create a structure that made it all real, then the movie kind of clicked."
Is there a taboo surrounding the way that not only slavery is discussed in America but also the terms in which the Civil War is talked about? It seems incredible that the causes are still a matter of controversy when they seem clear enough.
"Well it's amazing, and one of the main reasons why I wanted to make the film was exactly what you're talking about. The Civil War's still going on in America. There's still many people that want to hold onto the Confederacy as this great concept that had nothing to do with slavery. That was one of the things, if you honestly look at history, and you read books outside of battlefield books, you quickly find out that it was all about slavery. So that's really the chief reason I wanted to make the film, to finally give the history of America from this other point of view. You know, the Confederate flag still flies over the State of Mississippi, over the State House. You still see it on a lot of people's cars and trucks. You still see Hollywood making movies that celebrate the Confederacy, in various ways, as a sad, lost cause. A great civilisation gone with the wind, as Gone with the Wind calls it. But from the slave point of view, there's nothing civilised about it.
"I think it's interesting how our [fake] historian says that by losing the war, the South and the Confederacy really wins. Our sympathies go to them in movies. Our sympathy went to them in literature. Unfortunately, to get these two regions, the North and the South, back together again, we had to remove the issue of slavery from the cause of war. It's like two guys fighting over a girl, and once the two guys decide to become friends again, what happens to the reputation of the girl? And the reputation of the girl is slavery. That's what happened. Slavery was just removed from the cause of the war so North and South could become friends again."
In the film the South take advantage of the fact that Northerners were once slave owners, and, indeed, that the founding fathers were slave owners. The implication is that this is not just an issue for the South but for the whole of the United States. It's an American issue.
"That's exactly right. And that's the other big theme in the film. It's kind of easy to attack the Confederacy in the South and call them racists. The reality of it is that slavery did start in the North and some of the worst places Dr King went in a protest was not down South, it was Chicago. The other example I always gives is I live in Kansas, so it's not the Mississippi Board of Education case that desegregated schools, it's the Topeka Kansas Board of Education case. So, you know, even places like Kansas, where we fought over being a free state here, and we love our abolitionist roots in many ways, even Kansas became segregated and Jim Crow existed here. So it's a very complicated history and you're trying to find ways to simplify it so that people can take what I like to call ownership of the history. Right now, I think the big problem we have as Americans is we've not fully taken ownership of this history. We can't talk about it freely, we can't talk about it openly, we can't talk about it without feeling guilty, or without feeling angry. So it's also a real problem."
You address the myth of Manifest Destiny in the film and suggest that underlying it is a belief in white American racial superiority. Bush has spoken in terms of something like manifest destiny in his justification for the invasion of Iraq.
"Well yeah. It's interesting because to own slaves means you have to turn people into things and the whole concept of slavery goes along with colonialism and Manifest Destiny and controlling other people's countries, the whole list of that kind of stuff. I think we see them as separate things at times, and we discuss them as separate things, but the reality of it is that they all started out of the same kind of concept, which is: we are better than you. And any time that you go into the ‘we are better than you' kind of idea, you're going to run into this kind of reality. So yeah, it's an interesting kind of situation. Hopefully showing how the real CSA wanted to take over Central America and South America and so forth means you do make those links to Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam, the whole list of things that we've gotten involved in that, in the end, are CSA kind of feelings and ideas."
Different generations of the fictional, ultra conservative Fauntroy dynasty represent the continuation of these values and attitudes throughout the film, and, I suppose, American history.
"That's exactly right. They're kind of the Bushes or the Kennedys of the CSA [laughs]. You know, they have this point of view which is the world is there to serve us, its resources, its people, whatever. It's the essence of the Manifest Destiny concept that the world is ours to use at will. And, you know, it's all point of view. Obviously the Bush administration and others would say, ‘That's not the way we feel at all about all of this,' but from the slave point of view, from the point of view of the people that are in a country and then suddenly people invade it, for whatever reason, they go, ‘Last week I could go down to the market and today I can't, because we're shooting and killing people outside.' It's one thing to talk about it politically; it's another thing to talk about it in terms of human life. And what the film tries to do as well, I think, is to show what's at stake for the little people."
At the end of the film Ambrose talks nostalgically about family friend Hitler and his dream of America regaining its Aryan heritage. That's disturbing because some people in American are warning about a drift towards fascism.
"The problem is a lot of the folks that really believe in that don't realise what it means. They'll talk about heritage, they talk about the ‘good old days', but from the African-American point of view, we don't have the ‘good old days'. The good old days started like about five years ago [laughs]. We have moments in America that we can celebrate, but it's hard for us to celebrate the whole thing, if we're going to be honest about it. Even with people like Fauntroy, there's a huge thing of denial that's going on where they pick and choose the history that they want to celebrate. They talk about heritage but never speak about slavery. They talk about heritage and they never talk about the people they hurt when they invade these countries. So the thing the movie tries to do is be like the Howard Zinn book [A People's History of the United States], in that it's a people's history of the world. It's the history that we feel as much as it is anything else."
I corresponded with someone at the Hunter Museum and she said that there was no real controversy when they screened the film, that it was a fascinating look at what might have been. However, the way you're talking about it, and the way that I understood it watching it, is that the film is a ‘What is' rather than a ‘What if'.
"Yes. The thing we worked to achieve was not to give people that out. I think that Hollywood, oftentimes, even science fiction at times, give people an out. It says ‘Oh, this is just a fantasy. This is just a crazy, crazy little world I've created that has nothing to do with you,' or the connections are so subtle, most people don't find them. We wanted to be artistic and subtle as well but we also wanted to be honest about the history. People say, ‘Well, this is really heavy handed', and I'm like, not really. What may feel heavy handed to people is just the reality of slavery. We don't make you feel better about what happened. The example I always give is Nazi Germany, or the bombings in England. You wouldn't want to deal with that by saying, ‘This stuff makes you a little uncomfortable so we're going to hold back on this.' No, these were horrible things that happened to people and you can't make people feel better about these things by toning them down. They're realities. Part of the problem, oftentimes in film, I think, is you don't feel the impact of what this thing you're trying to express is.
"So, anyway, the point being that for me at Chattanooga, it was a beautiful experience. I think in some many different ways some of my best experiences have been in the South talking about the film, and some of my worst have been in the North. I think liberals, and I would probably be called one of them for no better choice of word, liberal folks are even a worse part of the problem, because good liberal people don't want to go there. It's ugly, it's uncomfortable, it makes people feel bad at times. There's a part-liberal thing that has said, ‘Oh, let's all be nice to each other, even if it means being dishonest with each other.' Political correctness, in a sense.
"See, liberal folks like to believe if you say the right words and look in certain directions and not other directions, that everything is great. And conservatives would get mad at me and say, ‘Well this is not my America.' Well that's a valid argument. If you don't want to believe this I guess that's okay. But you kind of expect liberal folks to be open. Liberal folks' whole thing is, ‘I'm open [laughs]. I'm open to suggestions and other cultures and other ways of life, blah, blah, blah.' The reality of it is they're closed to it for a whole other set of reasons. They're closed to it because they can't control it, and they can't control the feeling of it. It makes them feel bad. It makes them uncomfortable. Americans need a lot more of feeling uncomfortable about their reality. I grew up with the movies in the Seventies and the Seventies movies always did that. They made you question what was going on, what's happening, what reality am I living in, all those things. I think that's good."
Have you had problems knocking down some of the walls between the film and some people who still support the notion of a Confederacy, though? I have read comments on the net where people say they cannot even begin to debate the film because they feel you're trampling over the memory of ancestors who died fighting for the South, painting them as racists.
"They don't think about my ancestors who they had chained up to a tree. So, you know, I think the fact that they're able to divorce my reality from their reality is the problem. A gentleman I met in Chattanooga, which is one of the reasons why I loved that experience so much, he was the first gentleman who you'd call probably a Confederate, and somebody who was probably a member of the Sons of the Confederacy or something, he said, ‘I disagree that you compare the Confederate flag with the Nazi flag.' I said ‘That's fine, I understand.' ‘But,' he said, ‘if I was a black man, I would be upset about this. I would be offended by the flag as well.' I said to him, ‘Well why isn't that enough? Why isn't that enough? If you know why I would be offended by the flag, then why isn't that enough?' And that's the issue. They don't care about my reality enough to make them give up a whole kind of heritage that, in my opinion, is not worth celebrating the way they want to try and celebrate it. What this gentleman was trying to get at was can't the Confederate flag mean a lot of different things? I said it can't. I said ‘If I put an X on a piece of paper and I went to your house, and me and these other guys were carrying this sheet with an X on it, and we burn down your house and we shoot your dad, and we rape your mom, and we take your brother and sister away and enslave them, what would that X mean?' And that's just the reality of it.
"The point I would love to have people see is that it's time to try and make the American flag have some kind of real meaning instead of holding on to dead flags, and dead iconography. The American flag has been in some really bad places, and done a lot of really bad things, but the one thing you have to say about the American flag is it's still a living flag. It's a living thing and it can become better [laughs], it can do good things as well. And it has done good things. So you try to sell them on that idea of, why are you still holding onto this other thing? And I know why they do, because they were raised to believe that's what that was. But they were raised to believe it at the expense of not thinking about my pain."
Finally, how optimistic are you that these debates will take place?
"Well things get better all the time. You can't help but be optimistic. I try to look at myself as an optimistic person. But it's tough. I'll just be honest, it's tough to get black folks and white folks to talk about these things.
"The road blocks we ran into with the media here [America] in being afraid to talk about it is probably the best example. I think the History Channel is the best one. When we kind of get to the core of things and the things that still separate us, we choose to just go, ‘Well that's a little too uncomfortable. We're not going to talk about it.' And those are the very things we have to talk about. We have to find a way for black people to deal with their residual anger, the pain that we still have about these things. And we have to find a way to talk to these Confederates and others that still want to hold onto these things as a beautiful concept, and talk about their ancestors and so forth.
"I always say celebrate their courage but not their cause. If I had a relative that died in the war or fought in the war, I would certainly want to honour their courage. But I would separate it from the cause. And that's the part that we have not been fully able to achieve. They feel like to celebrate the courage they have to lie about the cause, and water down the cause, and make the cause better or different than it actually was. That's a huge gap that we still have. A huge gap. We've come a long way but we've still got a long way to go."
CSA: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA IS RELEASED ON AUGUST 4TH