C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America could be the most controversial movie you’ll never see this year. With scenes of slaves being hawked on a QVC-type TV network and Abe Lincoln portrayed in blackface, the critically lauded faux Ken Burns-style documentary — which traces an alternate history of slavery in America had the South won the Civil War — proved incendiary when it premiered at Sundance in 2004. ”Being outrageous gives us a way to get a handle on the race issue,” says writer-director Kevin Willmott. ”We’re gonna have to stop being PC or we aren’t going to make it. And our film pulls the drawers down around the problem and exposes it.” The hot-button material wasn’t a problem for IFC Films (the studio that helped bring Fahrenheit 9/11 to the screen), which scooped up C.S.A. for less than a million dollars (the movie cost $400,000 to make) during the festival. But instead of releasing it immediately, IFC held C.S.A. for almost two years, and the film made its theatrical debut only last month in Memphis, despite the fact that the studio controls New York City’s IFC Center. Was there a master plan behind the delay? ”We purposely held out because we didn’t think [race] was an election-year issue, although it should have been,” says Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC. ”We didn’t want the movie to get lost.”
But C.S.A. is still MIA to the public, at least those not in Tennessee. ”The idea was to get the African-American community down there involved in supporting the film,” explains Sehring. ”C.S.A. should have some very vocal champions, and quite honestly, we were disappointed in Memphis.” And that’s even with a Lee charging into battle on their behalf. ”We’ve got Spike Lee’s name on it [as a presenter], and we still have trouble recruiting other notable African Americans.”
Willmott agrees that the initial plan may have backfired. ”At first we thought, bottom up; start something grassroots. But actually, I think top-down is the way to do it now — then people can jump on the bandwagon.” To that effect, IFC is planning to open C.S.A. at the IFC Center in February, to coincide with Black History Month. ”We run a meritocracy at our theater, but we have a little more incentive to keep our own movies playing,” says Sehring.
It’s a new strategy that the filmmakers hope will jump-start a national debate. ”If we do a good job getting the word out, we’ll be okay. Hollywood doesn’t make movies about racism because it makes us uncomfortable,” says Willmott. ”Black folks get angry and ashamed, white folks feel guilty and afraid, and nothing moves forward. And we won’t talk about it until something slaps us upside the face.” This is one time Willmott and IFC hope the South will rise again.