Monday, February 27, 2006

CSA: The Confederate States of America

      When I first read Things Fall Apart years and years ago, I was blown away by the simplicity of the writing, by how much emotional power could be wrought from stark / spare / direct language. I revisited the book over last Thanksgiving and was again floored. The psychological insight in Chinua Achebe’s classic 1958 African novel simultaneously illuminates past and present: how we got here, why we’re still here. Even knowing the story, a pit sat in my stomach the whole time I was reading. With each page turned, I hoped the outcome would be less than bleak, something other than what it obviously would and had to be. The fact that I was reading the book and thinking about it in English, as an American, gave away something of the ending. Any random scan of news coming out of Africa theses days, pretty much gives away the ending. (See: Darwin's Nightmare.)
      In this story of the rise and fall of Okonkwo, a proud African man who holds a hard earned position of power in his tribe, Achebe skillfully outlines Nigerian Igbo culture – the traditions, language, beliefs and practices that fall beneath the feet of European colonialists. Through his incisive sketch of Okokkwo, he beautifully illustrates the dual function of character traits, how that which drives and makes us can also be our undoing. Without flinching, he draws the brutal costs of white supremacy and racism while granting a berth and depth to whiteness that white authors who’d written about Africa up to that point had not allowed the blackness of their African characters. He says so much with such a fine hand.
      My wish for a literary remix of history while reading Fall Apart came to mind the first time I saw Kevin Willmott’s CSA: The Confederate States of America at Sundance in 2004. This mockumentary (an admittedly played out genre), shaped in the form of a PBS-style documentary but laced with prime-time style commercials, fucks with notions of historical truth and the construction of racial identities, just for starters. Deeply researched and painstakingly crafted, the film imagines what the world would be like if the South had won the American civil war. Filled with talking heads, faux file footage and photos, and dramatic re-enactments of re-imagined history, it’s a Negro fever dream that critiques white supremacy and U.S. imperialism as they play out in everything from TV advertising to U.S. global policies. Told with tongue-in-cheek and a withering, jaded eye on race matters, the film is hilarious and, as it unfolds, discomfitting. At least, it’s all of that to me.
      CSA has garnered mixed but largely fair reviews. A white friend of mine in New York emailed me that he saw it in a racially mixed theater and no one laughed the entire time. (I think that may, in part, be due to the skewed if not over inflated expectations of any art dealing with race, as well as the dynamic of a racially mixed crowd.) He also said he thought the film could have been a fifteen minute short and made its point just as well – if not better. I understand that. It’s a one-joke premise stretched into sprawling commentary. I didn’t mind riding the riffs, though, even the obvious ones. I thought the bell hooks-esque commentator was dead-on and wanted to see more of her. And I found many of the “commercials” (a number of which are based on real-life American ad campaigns) to be funny in an Oh, shit! I can’t believe that Negro went there way. Maybe the laughter is just a release-valve whistling off steam.

1 comment:

nydy said...

I first read When Things Fall Apart in 1988. The book cover (soft back) was tattered but not torn, from a second hand book store in Berkeley, CA. I loved Achebe so much that he became one of my favorite authors and I began to search for anything I could find that was written by him. Although I had copies of and collected all the black authors that were popular at the time, I had what you would call a very nice libary. However, Achebe was the catalyst that prompted me to form my own Black Authors Library by collecting known and unknown authors of color. I intend for this cataloged library to be a legacy to my grandchildren, greatgrand, etc., etc., so that they might be exposed to the greatness of their brothers and sisters throughout the land.