-By Doris Toumarkine

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Attention, class. The prerequisite for this course, er, film is Ken Burns' PBS "Civil War" series, a solid foundation in the basics of 20th-century U.S. history and pop culture, and a genuinely felt outrage at this country's practice of slavery and overall exploitation of blacks, including such exploitation in media and marketing.

Such requirements, including the latter, are not difficult to come by, as the history of the treatment of blacks by whites in America is not a pretty picture. But what will challenge viewers partaking of CSA: The Confederate States of America is their tolerance for a film that is unrelenting in its cleverness but repetitive in hammering home this message of shameful black oppression.

Not that CSA isn't impressive. Employing hundreds of actors, including extras, and spot-on production design in the various genres it spoofs, the film is inventive and oftimes amusing as it overkills us with its important message. But the problem isn't with the message but the messenger, the film itself.

Not quite as sprawling as Gone with the Wind, CSA, with epic designs, aggregates archival footage and stills; re-enacted historic scenes, archival material, news footage and newsreels; and spoofs of period and contemporary TV commercials, TV shows, educational films, Broadway musicals, and familiar Hollywood feature genres (silents, '40s mellers, patriotic war films) to present its ersatz British documentary pastiche (a British Broadcasting System or BBS production) of a radically revised history of the U.S. From the cotton fields to the battlefields to other fields that feed America's thirst for domination, CSA covers the history of an America that becomes all red states and comfortable with blackface and the aggressive marginalizing and oppression of the black race.

The retelling begins significantly with the Confederacy beating the Union, Lee beating Grant, and figures like Abe Lincoln and Harriet Tubman beating it to Canada for refuge. The domination of the South is largely told through the Fauntroy dynasty, a line of political scions (right-wing Kennedys) who dominate American politics through the ages. Recent history even has it that the U.S. has conquered the Americas.

CSA and its BBS mock-doc are broken up by commercial interruptions, often amusing send-ups that are rife with the anti-black zeitgeist and the real doc's message of exploitation. The anger that ripples beneath is palpable and certainly deserved, but it does not necessarily make for an entertaining or enlightening experience. As such, CSA will preach to the choir but gain few outsiders, meaning those who need to be reached, educated and sensitized.

Clever and assured, but so insistent upon its message and your attention to it, CSA is ultimately like the precocious kid brought before the adults who initially delights but whose unwavering routine far outstays its welcome. You can't really say you enjoyed the spectacle, but you have to respect it.

-Doris Toumarkine

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