In light of Mississippi’s declaration of April as Confederate Heritage Month, it is helpful to take a step back and look at how the Civil War is actually seen by American people. Was it a conflict over the peculiar institution of slavery, or was it centered on states’ rights and individual freedoms? In their “Civil War Reenactment” skit, Key and Peele shed some light on the all too common occurrence of the Southern Confederate apologist.
The focal point of this brief Key and Peele skit is quite familiar to historians who are acquainted with public perception of the American Civil War. Posing as a Confederate officer, a Civil War reenactor rallies the troops under his command to the protection of the Southern way of life, which he describes as both “pure” and “beautiful.” Much to his dismay, his speech is interrupted by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have assumed the roles of stereotypical obedient slaves in this reenactment.
This portrayal of American attitudes toward the role of slavery and the Civil War contrasts deeply with other programs that depict the institution’s brutality. Graphic depictions of slavery in films such as Twelve Years a Slave portray its brutality accurately without whitewashing its history. However, large segments of the population look at this as revisionism, championing the views put forward by the Confederate reenactor in Key and Peele’s skit.
When you separate the Civil War from slavery, can you create an accurate picture of American history? This question drives the disagreement between recent dramatic treatments of slavery and a “safer” view of the Civil War which ignores the institution altogether. Comedy in the vein of this Key and Peele skit may be able to succeed in ways that drama thus far has not. Its effect comes not from a clear, brutal depiction of slavery, but from illuminating the absurdity of its absence. In the romantic vision held by the skit’s reenactment leader, and those like him in the United States in the twenty-first century, the Confederacy fought for states’ rights and for personal liberty, so long as that person just happened to be a white male. But when Key and Peele cleverly and comically expose his racist thinking, they tie the Confederate cause right back to the issue of race and slavery.
In emphasizing the absurdity of the beliefs held by the Confederate reenactors, Key and Peele attempt to show just how ridiculous it is to view the Civil War without slavery. This can be coupled with the “Slave Auction” skit, in which the titular traumatic experience is reexamined through a similar raw, comedic lens. In that case, the only thing worse for Key and Peele than being sold as slaves was not being sold, not being wanted. In both instances, serious racial and historical questions are analyzed in the name of comedy. For many, race and slavery are off-limits topics, far too uncomfortable to be addressed. Is comedy the key to bridging the gap between “higher” culture and a lack of historical understanding. If it starts the conversation and opens a dialogue about slavery and the Civil War, then why can’t it be?
Key and Peele’s “Civil War Reenactment”: https://vimeo.com/136010091