Industry vets are hesitant to (publicly) judge so soon, but what makes the premise so controversial is “that it threatens to erase the actual history,” says activist Bree Newsome.
The swift and sustained backlash surrounding HBO’s Confederate, the upcoming drama from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss that imagines a modern-day Confederate nation with legal slavery, illustrates the profound — and to some, insurmountable — perils of making entertainment about America’s original sin.
In the week since HBO’s July 19 announcement, concern — led by black activists, writers and other thought leaders — has mounted over the project’s premise and the pedigrees of its creators. At the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday, HBO programming president Casey Bloys expressed hope that viewers would “judge the actual material versus what it might be.” But while many of the industry’s screenwriters and critics have been hesitant to (publicly) weigh in based on the high concept alone, the nascent series already is facing a number of challenging issues.
“What makes the premise fundamentally problematic is that it threatens to erase the actual history,” activist and artist Bree Newsome, who made headlines in 2015 when she was arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“There has been so much deliberate miseducation around the Civil War, and this basically rewrites black history of the past 150 years,” she adds. “We combat racism through educating people on history, so it’s dangerous to present alternative histories when people are still not clear on the facts.”
Confederate, as outlined in HBO’s initial release, “chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”
But constructing an alt timeline centered around the continuation of slavery for another 150 years requires a certain significant assumption, says writer Steven Barnes, whose 2002 novel Lion’s Bloodimagines an alternate history in which Africa is the dominant colonizing civilization and slaves are of European descent.
“How do you keep these people there? Do you put little bombs in their heads?” he asks. “The longer you continue this, especially if you do not have a fantastic numerical advantage, the more you are implying that the people you have kept under servitude are inferior. They couldn’t think their way out of this. They couldn’t figure out a way to escape.”
That narrative premise, he adds, directly underlies the real-life basis of racial bias: “There are plenty of people who think that black people just aren’t quite as capable or intelligent.”
University of Alabama history chair Joshua Rothman, who specializes in studying race and American slavery, says that most historians today believe that enslaved people played a significant role in their own emancipation. “As soon as the chance for real freedom presented itself, they were on it,” he says. “The policies of the federal government and things happening in the military were obviously crucial, but enslaved people were leading the way and putting the government in a situation where they had to respond. If you’re going to do this [drama], you need to demonstrate that enslaved people themselves were not waiting to be freed.”
Confederate‘s critics are widely troubled by how its creators will portray its black characters, given Benioff and Weiss’ absence of a track record in the area. “What confidence should we have in two gentleman who can’t talk about race on their own show and have had seven seasons to introduce significant characters of color?” asks April Reign, creator of the hashtag campaign #OscarsSoWhite.
The show’s detractors accuse Benioff and Weiss of exploiting black suffering for the purposes of art and entertainment. “I have never known David Benioff or D.B. Weiss to ever speak out about black issues like Black Lives Matter or the school-to-prison pipeline, which is our modern-day slavery,” says film and culture critic ReBecca Theodore. “These white filmmakers who have been silent on the plight of black America are basically profiting off of black pain. This show is just something cool that will give them ratings and accolades, but there’s nothing in their work that has ever shown that they have a vested interest in the welfare of black Americans.”
The involvement of Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who are black and will write and executive produce alongside Benioff and Weiss, provides little reassurance to those concerned about Confederate, who uniformly point out that the latter pair retain showrunning authority. Notes The Daily Beast writer Ira Madison III, “It’s odd that you realize you need two black people to tell your slavery story, but it never concerns you to have black perspectives on Game of Thrones.”
It’s not just the black characters that Confederate‘s creators will have to watch out for. In addition to enslaved people, freedom fighters and abolitionists, the ensemble will include, according to the HBO release, slave hunters and “executives of a slave-holding conglomerate” as well. In a modern pop culture landscape of antiheroes and sympathetic antagonists, many blanch at the prospect of empathizing with a slave owner.
“I would caution them about trying to depict the cliche of ‘good people caught in a bad system.’ That is a trap,” says Rothman, who is white. “Slaveholders knew that lots of people all over the world, including many in their own country, believed that slavery was immoral, and they made the choice to keep doing that.”
However, he adds, “I don’t think there is anything to be gained by depicting slaveholders in a way that dehumanizes them. To say that they were monsters lets us off the hook. If you’re going to depict them in a way that is both accurate and satisfying for a television show, you have to figure out a way to talk about their humanity. Slavery was a system designed, carried out and supported by human beings.”
One Civil War-set show praised for its nuanced depiction of both black and white characters is Underground, the acclaimed drama that was canceled in May, a victim of WGN America’s rebranding efforts. The series, co-created by Misha Green, a black woman, has yet to find a new home. “If HBO is interested in a series about the enslavement of black people, Underground is still there,” Reign notes. “Viewers would champion the fact that HBO saved that show, instead of created yet another slavery narrative that seems to be incredibly insensitive.”
Confederate also has drawn comparisons to two other prestige TV alt-history dramas: Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Yet they’re not the same, many argue. To understand why the former show is acceptable and Confederate isn’t is to grasp the complicated concept of intersectionality, which is the interplay of multiple categories of identity. “Racism and sexism are both present, but sexism works in a way that even white women [have] a certain privilege,” Theodore explains. “There’s not enough distance in the way racism works for black people. The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale reminding us why we need to fight, but Confederate is different because we’re on the front lines now and actually seeing the carnage.”
As for The Man in the High Castle, Newsome notes that “we don’t have monuments to Nazis” in real life, whereas Confederate monuments and iconography are commonplace throughout certain regions of the United States. “People are pretty clear that the Nazis’ cause was wrong, but it’s not that clear-cut with the Confederacy,” she adds. “We normalize it: ‘There was a North and a South, and each had their causes.’ It equalizes them, like the cause of abolition is equally as valid as the cause of slavery.”
Confederate‘s critics are not so much shocked by the show’s premise as they are fatigued by it. In addition to Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, whose alternate timeline required six years of research to construct, other speculative fiction stories involving slavery also already exist, including Kevin Willmott’s 2004 indie mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. Willmott declined to speak to THR, explaining that he and executive producer Spike Lee are planning to pursue legal action against the Confederate producers.
There are also books as diverse in genre as romance novelist Alyssa Cole’s recently published An Extraordinary Union, about an enslaved woman who is actually a spy for the North, and Octavia Butler’s 1979 sci-fi classic Kindred. The best-seller, which has never been adapted for film or television, follows a contemporary black woman who is pulled through time to the antebellum South, where she encounters her ancestors, including the white slaveowner whose rape of an enslaved woman led to her own existence.
“There are properties out there that are way more compelling and progressive than Confederate,” Theodore says. But what she and many others want most is to see black characters included in more diverse narratives.
“When it comes to fictional universes, black people are shut out and prevented from going into other realms,” says Richard Newby, executive editor of the film criticism site Audiences Everywhere. “When slavery becomes the dominant image of a people in pop culture, that’s what black people become associated with. I don’t think that’s beneficial to anyone to continue to suggest that this is the only kind of story where our lives matter.”