Key and Peele’s “Civil War Reenactment”: Historical Sketch Comedy as Social Commentary

Key and Peele’s “Civil War Reenactment”: Historical Sketch Comedy as Social Commentary

“Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Civil War Reenactment Sketch,” Image courtesy of Comedy Central, 2012.

Americans are increasingly forgetful of the fact that the Civil War was about slavery. Atlanta’s 2010 Sesquicentennial kicked off with a celebration of secession, sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Only a few days ago, Mississippi’s governor declared April “Confederate Heritage Month.” Fortunately, opposing voices from the realm of pop culture have recently emerged to challenge this historical negligence. Brilliant comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s 2012 “Civil War Reenactment” sketch pinpoints the ways in which the “Confederate heritage” movement erroneously divides slavery from the Civil War, with negative consequences for twenty-first century race relations.

The Key and Peele series appeared on Comedy Central from 2012 to 2015. In 2015, the show was nominated “Favorite Sketch Comedy TV Show” by the People’s Choice Awards. Though the series no longer runs, full episodes may be found on Comedy Central’s website and clips are available on Vimeo. Key and Peele is a very useful classroom tool for high school and college students, who will appreciate its humor as educators inform them about the causes and consequences of the Civil War.

The focal point of “Civil War Reenactment” is highly familiar to historians acquainted with public perceptions of the American Civil War. A stern Civil War reenactor posing as a Confederate officer rallies his troops to protect the Southern way of life, which he describes as “pure” and “beautiful.” The opening moments invoke the corny grandiosity of Lost Cause stereotypes in popular films like Gods and Generals or Gettysburg as soldiers kneel dramatically by the Southern flag. Much to the general’s dismay, his speech is suddenly interrupted by Key and Peele, who portray stereotypical obedient slaves and send the Confederate general into awkward flights of anachronism as he tries to dismiss the comedians’ presence at the “serious” reenactment.

This comedic portrayal of American attitudes about slavery and the Civil War contrasts deeply with other recent programs which realistically demonstrate the institution’s brutality. Graphic depictions of slavery in films such as Twelve Years a Slave portray its horrors without whitewashing history. However, disturbingly large segments of the population look at this form of popular culture 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 view of the Civil War which ignores the institution altogether. Comedy like Key and Peele’s skit may be able to succeed in ways that drama thus far has not. Its effect comes not from a clear, horrific 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 twenty-first century United States, the Confederacy fought for states’ rights and for personal liberty only as long as that freedom benefited white males. But when Key and Peele cleverly and comically expose the reenactor’s racism, they again join the Confederate cause with race and slavery.

“Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Auction Block Sketch,” Image courtesy of Comedy Central, 2012.

In emphasizing the absurdity of the Confederate reenactor’s beliefs, Key and Peele attempt to show just how ridiculous it is to view the Civil War without slavery. “Civil War Reenactment” can be coupled with the same episode’s “Auction Block” skit, in which slavery is reexamined through a similarly raw, comedic lens. In this sketch, the only thing worse than being sold as slaves was not being sold– or labeled as unwanted “goods”. Key and Peele begin to complain when they are not sold, and the white auctioneer chides them for being “superficial” and “bigoted” and halts the auctions–another scathing commentary on the ridiculousness of white supremacy. For many viewers, producers, and institutions, race and slavery are off-limits and deemed 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?

Michael Fischer

Mike Fischer is a graduate student at Villanova University.

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