Dalton School Apologizes For Screening Willmott’s C.S.A.

Willmott C.S.A.By now many of you have heard that an elite school in New York City has apologized for showing Kevin Wilmott’s satirical movie, “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” which imagines what the United States would be like had the Confederacy won the Civil War. It’s still unclear what specifically led to the apology by the Dalton School beyond some of the students expressing concern about the film.

Let’s be clear, however, this is a case of Dalton’s administration and History Department dropping the ball and not a matter of the inappropriateness of the film itself. First, the film was shown to sophomores, who are likely not mature enough and there is no evidence that the students were given sufficient historical context to understand both the content and goals of Kevin Willmott’s film.

I showed the film while teaching in Virginia to a group of seniors, who were taking a version of my Civil War Memory course that focused specifically on film. By the time they watched “C.S.A.” we had already analyzed images of African Americans in films from “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Shenandoah,” and “Glory.” Students had also read articles that included analysis of how the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War understood slavery and blacks generally.

For the purposes of our class discussions the most interesting aspect of the movie were the faux commercials. It didn’t take long for students to understand that the racist imagery in commercials in a world where the Confederacy proved victorious were not much different from the reality of racism in commercials and other advertisements that were used in this country throughout much of the twentieth century. It’s not an easy movie to show, especially in a multi-racial classroom, but with the right preparation it can be incredibly effective.

One of the things that I value about teaching in a private school is the freedom to use a fairly wide range of resources in the classroom. It is impossible to imagine a public school allowing Willmott’s film to be shown, but with that freedom comes responsibility. It’s a shame because the Dalton School’s response to this incident makes it seem as if the film is somehow racist as opposed to seeing it as exposing the ways in which Americans have accepted and even embraced certain racist images, especially those associated with certain products.

Willmott himself summed up the problem quite well.

This, in essence, is the American problem in race. The minute that things become real, the minute that you get close to the edge, everything shuts down. This was an opportunity for dialogue in the school setting.

Let’s hope they get around to it if they haven’t already done so.

33 comments… add one

  • Mark R. Cheathem Feb 2, 2014

    Yep, a real shame. The film is brilliant at times, and the commercials are definitely the best parts.

  • Al Mackey Feb 2, 2014

    I think the film is outstanding alternate history. You’re absolutely right that the students have to be prepared to view it, and they need to be older. The more history you know, the better you can appreciate the film. Not only were some of the advertisements in the movie not much different from what was actually shown in the US, but in some cases the products were exactly the same.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

      Which reminds me of the movie’s reference to drapetomania.

    • M.D. Blough Feb 2, 2014

      Part of the preparation is to acquaint students with the role of satire in political commentary and even advocacy and that the use of satire for these functions does not mean that the subject is being treated lightly.

  • Mike Rogers Feb 2, 2014

    I just checked, and this movie is available to stream on Netflix. I had not heard of it before your post Kevin, but will try to carve out some time to watch it later this week.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

      The link in the post should take you to the movie on YouTube if it is still available.

  • Nathan Towne Feb 2, 2014

    I only saw that film once, but I only remember it being very silly. There were certainly amusing moments but contrary to what Mr. Mackey said it shouldn’t be approach end as really anything but. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it being shown but it is essentially the same type of film as say, “Blackadder.” I wouldn’t get too carried away in terms of it containing anything of real substance.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

      I am going to disagree with your assessment only because it worked so well in my own classes. No doubt, it was at times silly, but that was also the intention of the director.

      • Nathan Towne Feb 10, 2014

        I understand that it was the intention, as it is a comedy and I also understand that many mediums can be used as a mechanism of storytelling or analysis, but this film is really quite over the top.

        You may or may not have read them but compare it to something like the Lord of the Rings book trilogy, which despite its genre (fantasy) has a tremendous amount to say. It deals with life and the human character, the majesty of the human spirit, courage, devotion, loyalty, perseverance as well as about societies, how they operate, functionalism, the framework of law, how individuals drastically shape and change the course of history through their actions, death, loss, immortality, power, temptation, addiction, the repercussions of change and of course faith (and providence) e.t.c.

        My feeling with the C.S.A. film is that it really is a “mockumentary,” in the true sense of the word and I think that it can come across as preachy and not particularly useful, although I do recognize the many cultural references.

        Nathan Towne

        • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2014

          …but this film is really quite over the top.

          Of course it is, but given how I utilized it I still found it useful in class.

  • Brendan Bossard Feb 2, 2014

    Kevin, I’m curious to know whether you told your seniors that the movie is a satire before they watched it. Some people just don’t get satire. I can see how even an adult might have thought reflexively that the movie was “making light” of mistreatment of blacks if he or she was not prepared ahead of time.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

      I could not have shown it without first talking about satire for the reasons you mentioned.

      • Brendan Bossard Feb 3, 2014

        Sorry, Kevin…I didn’t mean to insult your teaching skills with my question (or make my intelligence appear less than optimal…) I was just trying to guage what might have been missing in the preparation of the students at the Dalton School.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 3, 2014

          Brendan,

          No worries. I certainly didn’t take anything you said personally.

  • Matt McKeon Feb 2, 2014

    Lee’s still a hero, even in this!

  • Ben Allen Feb 2, 2014

    Sophomores are “likely not mature enough,” eh? Balderdash! So long as they are “given historical context” they can handle any movie or documentary. In my sophomore year in public high school, my Honors English class got to watch “Schindler’s List” after reading Eli Wiesel’s recollections. Indeed, by the time they become sophomores, most adolescents have probably seen at least a few rated “R” movies. Either the sophomores you have met are/were generally less mature than those receiving a public education (perhaps because, in public schools, some of their classmates, through their misconduct, unknowingly help to instruct them in how to behave more properly at times) or are living/lived more sheltered lives.

    “It is impossible to imagine a public school allowing Willmott’s film to be shown…” Depends on the kind of class. With the demands of standardized tests, there isn’t a plethora of time to show any motion pictures in regular or, in some cases, even honors classes. However, if it is an Advanced Placement class, it is conceivable. Of course, showing material suitable for mature audiences runs the risk of upsetting people. But that rule equally applies to private schools, as this incidence in New York City attests.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

      Sophomores are “likely not mature enough,” eh? Balderdash!

      OK, I stand corrected.

      Depends on the kind of class. With the demands of standardized tests, there isn’t a plethora of time to show any motion pictures in regular or, in some cases, even honors classes.

      It’s not just the focus on the curriculum that is relevant. Given the many controversies surrounding the teaching of slavery and race that have surfaced in the public school system in recent years it is likely that administrators would not jump at the opportunity to show this movie.

      • Ben Allen Feb 2, 2014

        “Given the many controversies surrounding the teaching of slavery and race that have surfaced in the public school system in recent years it is likely that administrators would not jump at the opportunity to show this movie.” Especially in my neck of the woods: Culpeper County, Virginia. It seems that what is restraining them is (a) politics and (b) demographics. I think schools, both public and private, in New England (“the cradle of liberalism,” as I like to call that part of the country) have a better chance of showing this “mockumentary” than in any of the former Confederate states, especially in their rural areas.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

          I think schools, both public and private, in New England (“the cradle of liberalism,” as I like to call that part of the country) have a better chance of showing this “mockumentary”…

          I am not so sure about that.

          • Ben Allen Feb 2, 2014

            Oh dear! If many New Englanders and other northerners are unwilling to show this “mockumentary” in public (and private?) schools, then this reluctance to discuss the issue of race is severe indeed! I presume that is why you are “not so sure about that.” If this presumption of mine is untrue, do enlighten me, please.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

              I assume you will admit that there are any number of ways to discuss the tough questions of race in the classroom.

              • Ben Allen Feb 2, 2014

                Of course. However, it seems that this mockumentary and “12 Years a Slave,” provided that the students are sufficiently informed, seem to be more effective than the conventional ways of discussing race, i.e. just teaching it and giving out reading assignments. You and I, and most of this blog’s audience, are well-read on this topic (at least when it comes to the American Civil War) and therefore are relatively comfortable talking about this sensitive topic. But many students, let alone Americans, are not so; and curricular activities alone cannot change that situation. Consequently, “C.S.A.” and “12 Years a Slave” would probably have more of an affect on them than what they would have/had on us.

      • M.D. Blough Feb 2, 2014

        Also, with the current obsession on testing and the pressure on public school teachers to teach to the test, even if time could be found to show the film, I doubt that the teacher would have the time to provide the necessary context before and opportunity to discuss it afterwards.

  • AD Powell Feb 2, 2014

    The C.S.A. plot of a high-ranking Southern white politician being ostracized because of revelations of “Negro blood” never happened in real life. Fellow white elites usually circled the wagons to protect one of their own.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

      It’s a “mockumentary” and not a documentary.

  • Steve Feb 2, 2014

    I saw this silly movie in the theater with about 11 other people, after a few minutes about four people got up and left. I thought how little research was done to make the movie, if the south had won, why would an astronaut fly the “battle” flag on the moon? Or the capital building? The flag should be the third national flag -DUH! Second, the constitution of the Confederate states stopped the importation of Africans for slavery in 1862, so slavery would not of been re-instituted. When the civil war started in April of 1865, there were more slaves states in the U.S. than the C.S.A. Two days AFTER Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to invade a sovereign country, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennesee and No. Carolina seceded.
    Kids may be interested to learn about the war, but it is all anti- south, all about the slaves, and racism in the South. I would love to see a mockumentary about the New England states and their involvement in the slave trade.
    Any teacher who shows this movie as a learning tool, should do some more research. The movie is extremely biased and a big insult, the school should apologize !

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

      Steve,

      It’s not a documentary. With all due respect, this is a silly comment. That you see this as simply as an “anti-south” film suggests that you didn’t think very deeply about it.

  • Steve Feb 2, 2014

    It was silly, very silly. There was nothing “historical” about the film. Like I stated, there was little to no REAL research, very shabby. I never called it a documentary. Not once in my statement. The pretense, The South won the war, slavery spread all over the country? Really. I saw the movie for what is was silly anti southern propaganda. If you really want to talk about race relations in the U.S.; how about the fact it took 82 years for blacks to be allowed to serve next to white service members after the civil war. Why the black population grew in the south and declined in the north? This film was about as deep as my cats feeding dish. It was anti-south, explain how you could interpret it any other way. I have notice in my responses to many of your blogs you try to brush me off. I am a curator of an aviation museum, I do not interpret nor do I correct history, I put the facts out there and educate people.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2014

      OK, so you didn’t like the movie, but to sat that it is anti-south tells me much more about you than it does about the movie.

    • RE Watson Feb 3, 2014

      “….I put the facts out there and educate people.”
      “…When the civil war started in April of 1865,…”

      Yup ! You just put the facts out there !! :-)

    • Steve Feb 3, 2014

      My apologies – I meant to say 1861, is that the only thing you can comment on?What do my remarks say about me? I would like to know, please tell! I liked the movie, silly and entertaining but is not to be taken serious….at all. What point did the movie try to make? I understand Hollywood and the “creative license” when making movies. When there are glaring mistakes – battle flag instead of the third national, slavery spread all over the C.S.A. (The defeated U.S.) when the constitution of the CSA stopped the importation of African for slavery in 1862. The Native American and Black slave owners were not even addressed in the movie. What would that say about race relations? Again, slave owners are always portrayed as white Southerners, the other races and regions of the U.S. are given a pass. The movie never explained how slaves would be brought to the C.S.A, did the CSA make contracts with African tribes to catch other Africans for slavery? Would the CSA use the New England slaves ships to start the slave trade again? Was this to be an “economical stimulus package” to help the North get back on economic feet? The most glaring stupidity of the movie was, why would slavery still be in existence? Machinery would of replaced slavery long before the time frame the movie takes place. I dare say slavery would of died in this country within a generation of the 1860s, without the civil war. The invention of new machines would of made the ownership of people for purpose of slavery to expensive. So the movie while entertaining is worthless for any other purpose other than laughing!

  • Marian Latimer Feb 2, 2014

    Never mind the satire. Where do I get some of those shackles? I have a list of people I want to attach industrial strength shock collars to and these might do in a pinch.

  • Brendan Bossard Feb 3, 2014

    Kevin, this may be off-topic–in which case just say the word, and I will leave it alone–but since we are talking about satire here, I am curious to know whether you or any other teachers on this thread use, or would encourage the use, of _Huckleberry Finn_ in the classroom, and if so, in what context. My understanding is that it is more or less out of use nowadays, but since I have not gone to school since the mid ’80′s, I have no idea, really.

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