Imagine a world where the South won the Civil War and slavery is now incorporated into modern society. Slavery in a modern context is a scary thought and HBO recently decided to greenlight a series called Confederate with just that premise.
(One could argue that sex trafficking, the prison industrial complex, and the school to prison pipeline are all strong examples of how slavery does in fact still exist today in the U.S., but that’s for another story).
As a fan of speculative fiction, I am intrigued by how such a narrative could play out in the right hands. That last part is key. It’s a complex tale to share at any point in time and especially right now in light of the fact that the Trump administration’s political initiatives seem plucked straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Anyone daring to dive into an alternate history of this magnitude would have to do so with nuance, wit, dexterity, extraordinary creative intelligence, and a deep, genuine appreciation and understanding of the multi-faceted Black experience in this country.
All that said, the people spearheading Confederate are two white men (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) who are currently showrunners for Game of Thrones, a show with a cult-like following and a blindingly white cast. When news of the slavery-themed series reached the masses, Twitter users were quick to trample on the premise. Some assumed the show would be little more than slavery fan-fiction with two white men at the helm, while others thought the idea was just horrible regardless of who writes it.
give me the confidence of white showrunners telling hbo they wanna write slavery fanfic
— pilot (@pilotbacon) July 19, 2017
— Zora Neale Hustlin’ (@MarsinCharge) July 19, 2017
Benioff and Weiss responded to the criticism in an interview with Vulture. “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,” Benioff said.
After that promising statement, the two Black writers on the project also spoke up about the early jabs at Confederate.
“I do understand their concern. I wish their concern had been reserved to the night of the premiere, on HBO, on a Sunday night, when they watched and then they made a decision after they watched an hour of television as to whether or not we succeeded in what we set out to do. The concern is real. But I think that the four of us are very thoughtful, very serious, and not flip about what we are getting into in any way,” said Nichelle Tramble Spellman, writer and producer of The Good Wife.
Malcolm Spellman, writer for Empire, said the following:
I think people have got to stop pretending that slavery was something that happened and went away. The shit is affecting people in the present day. And it’s easy for folks to hide from it, because sometimes you’re not able to map it out, especially with how insidious racism has become. But everyone knows that with Trump coming into power, a bunch of shit that had always been there got resurfaced. So the idea that this would be pornography goes back to people imagining whips and plantations. What they need to be imagining is how fucked up things are today, and a story that allows us to now dramatize it in a more tangible matter.
It’s good that there are Black writers on this series that will hopefully have significant say in the narrative arc of the show, but these statements still do not necessarily instill confidence in Confederate hitting the right note. The two other shows on-air right now with alternate history/universe themes are The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle. Both shows have enjoyed critical acclaim (with noted criticism of The Handmaid’s Tale re: Black women), but both shows are also based on novels written by authors with years of experience in world-building in these alternate reality realms.
Ideally, Confederate will hire writers and consultants who can help create a story that works and rings true. Hopefully that means IMDB credits for talented speculative fiction writers like Tananarive Due, N.K. Jemisin, the writers from the anthology “Octavia’s Brood,” and so many others. Otherwise, regardless of intentions, I do not have confidence in the Game of Thrones creators appreciating the nuances of such a heavy topic. Sure they are not alone in the writing room, but they do call the shots. Who tells a story is just as important as what the story is.
However, if this show withstands the pre-pilot criticism and it does make it to the air, I will likely tune into the first episode. As Benioff so poignantly stated, they haven’t fucked up…yet. I’ll give them a chance to do just that.