confederate producers defend against backlash

Confederate seemed like an intriguing premise for an HBO series: an alternate-history science fiction show depicting an America where the South had won the Civil War, created by the showrunners of the huge fantasy hit Game of Thrones? How bold, how avant garde, how…revolutionary. But perhaps HBO didn’t anticipate the severe outrage that the announcement of the show would incite.

Immediately, pop culture critics called out HBO for broaching a subject that is still so prevalent and sensitive today, as well as whether showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who have met their share of controversy over Game of Thrones‘ lack of diversity and reliance on sexual violence, are the right people to handle such a volatile topic.

But the team behind Confederate, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Nichelle Tramble Spellman, and Malcolm Spellman, said they did see the backlash coming.

Confederate will explore an alternate America where the South had successfully seceded from the Union, and the two countries — the North, where slavery is banished, and the South, where slavery is still alive — are on the verge of a third Civil War. While the show is not yet in production and wouldn’t arrive to the small screen for another two years (at least), potential viewers were immediately incensed by the premise.

In an interview with Vulture, the Confederate producers, which include African-American executive producers and writers Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire), promise that the show will approach the topic sensitively. But is it a topic that should have been tackled at all?

Benioff told Vulture that history and “the notion of, what would the world have looked like if [Robert E.] Lee had sacked D.C., if the South had won — that just always fascinated me.” And Weiss expanded, saying that Confederate can bring topics of racism and slavery to light through the lens of science fiction:

“[I]t goes without saying slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. And history doesn’t disappear. That sin is still with us in many ways. Confederate, in all of our minds, will be an alternative-history show. It’s a science-fiction show. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama. It’s an ugly and a painful history, but we all think this is a reason to talk about it, not a reason to run from it.”

But could a contemporary or historical show not realistically depict the prejudice that black Americans still face today? Does The Wire or WGN America’s cancelled Underground series not do that?

Perhaps Confederate will offer a more approachable way for audiences to digest the horrors of slavery. But one of the most worrisome elements for critics of the show is that it will offer yet another exploitative or shallow depiction of black characters on TV. Benioff and Weiss have already faced controversy for this with their Season 5 finale of Game of Thrones depicting a white savior worshipped by a sea of slaves of color, not to mention the concerns critics have that the showrunners will carry over their reliance on sexual violence against women from Game of Thrones to Confederate, when there is a long history of slave women being raped by their masters.

Nichelle and Malcolm Spellman addressed some of this, saying the show will steer away from the “whips and plantation” imagery that people associate with the South and slavery.

“In this futuristic world, you could have this conversation in a straightforward manner without it being steeped in history: “What does this look like now.” I think what was interesting to all of us was that we were going to handle this show, and handle the content of the show, without using typical antebellum imagery. There is not going to be, you know, the big Gone With the Wind mansion. This is present day, or close to present day, and how the world would have evolved if the South had been successful seceding from the Union.”

Weiss also added that the scarcity of different races in Game of Thrones was due to it being an adaptation of a fictional, medieval world. He promises that they will approach Confederate differently.

“We were very hyper-aware of the difference between a show with a fictional history and a fictional world, and a show that’s an alternate history of this world. We know that the elements in play in a show like Confederate are much more raw, much more real, and people come into them much more sensitive and more invested, than they do with a story about a place called Westeros, which none of them had ever heard of before they read the books or watched the show.”

Today, there’s still an ongoing debate over the legitimacy of the Confederate flag, and whether Southern states who hang them above state buildings are actually perpetuating racism. Today, blacks are still being victimized and abused by a criminal justice system that unfairly targets them over white citizens. Today, slavery is not a thing of the past, but a pressing topic that many black Americans don’t want to see turned into a concept for a fantasy show.

And while Confederate may seem like another entry into the alternative-history show genre after Man in the High Castle or The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s still a very present reality for many African-Americans. Twitter user Jermaine Spradley puts it better than me, saying, “America has never truly reckoned with itself post-slavery. We haven’t done the work of accepting how who we were informs who we are… You look for the root cause of most of the issues plaguing black communities and you can make a direct correlation to slavery… TODAY. NOW.”

But in the end, it all comes down to a show that no one has seen yet, and hasn’t even been written yet. Benioff pointed out, “We don’t have an outline yet. We don’t even have character names. So, everything is brand-new and nothing’s been written. I guess that’s what was a little bit surprising about some of the outrage. It’s just a little premature. You know, we might fuck it up. But we haven’t yet.”

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