Friday, June 2, 2017

Brilliant Satire on Race in America

It's like Woody Allen's ZELIG blended in with the most memorable segments of Dave Chappelle's TV show on Comedy Central to make an intoxicating Molotov cocktail-like 90-minute mockumentary.  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.  The title is C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.  Before I tell you what it's about, let me give you a little film history.  Let's look at GONE WITH THE WIND first.  The 1939 Hollywood classic was made into a stage musical in the 1970s.  I kid you not.
The film was a box office blockbuster and the big winner of the Academy Awards for 1939.  Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American person nominated for an Oscar and the first to win.  You already know that, I'm sure.  She won for Best Supporting Actress.
The next Black performer to be nominated for an Oscar was singer/actress Ethel Waters.  She was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for 1949's race drama, PINKY, directed by Elia Kazan.
However, the next person in Academy Award history to get an Oscar nomination for playing a Black person was a very white British actress.  Flora Robson had played Queen Elizabeth I in 1937's historical film, FIRE OVER ENGLAND.  She played the housekeeper who narrates William Wyler's 1939 drama, WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  She played one of the British nuns in 1947's BLACK NARCISSUS.
But in Hollywood, she was covered in dark make-up and played the Black Haitian maid to Ingrid Bergman's Creole beauty character in 1945's New Orleans love story, SARATOGA TRUNK.  Robson was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for that performance.
That fact may cause some folks, like myself, to wonder "If the part was good enough to get a woman an Oscar nomination, why didn't they just let a Black actress play the Black maid?"

That kind of history is lampooned in this mockumentary.  The entire feature, commercials and TV station promos -- everything -- is done like a documentary airing on a TV station.  The documentary is how America changed after the Confederate side won the Civil War.  Historians speak, we see clips of history and old movies.  That's the brilliance of this alternate history.  If you're a serious fan of classic films, you should see D.W. Griffith's influential 1915 epic, THE BIRTH OF A NATION.  I've seen it a couple of times.  Technically, there are great production elements about this silent film.  But Griffith's blatant racism in images of Black people sets my teeth on edge.

The version of Griffith's film in C.S.A.:  CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA has such genius that it made me gasp.  The DVD  came out in the summer of 2006.  I was working on Whoopi Goldberg's national radio show then.  I saw the DVD.  I raved about it to her and I wanted to interview its African-American writer/director Kevin Willmott on the radio showAt that time, he was a professor at the University of Kansas.  I contacted him and gushed about how extraordinary his work was -- the concept, execution and all that writing.  His keen knowledge of American and Hollywood film history.  It's amazing. 

In fact, I still do not understand how Quentin Tarantino won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for DJANGO UNCHAINED when he basically wrote a new twist on a character introduced and played by Franco Nero in a popular 1966 western called...DJANGO.  Tarantino even gave Nero a cameo in his western.  C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA made seem a bit slow in spots in last half hour but you have to admit that, overall, it's original, smart, provocative and it makes a point.  Willmott co-wrote the 2015 film CHI-RAQ with its director Spike Lee.
Whoopi, unfortunately, was not enthusiastic about giving Mr. Willmott airtime back in 2006.  I still feel he deserved some.  Now that we've got a former network TV reality competition show host who had no prior political experience as America's current president -- a millionaire who repeatedly proclaimed that President Barack Obama was not a real American and demanded to see his birth certificate -- Kevin Willmott's mockumentary might be ripe for re-appreciation.  See for yourself and let me know what you think.  Click on this link:

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