When HBO announced that the next series from its Game of Thrones showrunners will be Confederate, an alternate-reality saga that assumes the South won the Civil War and preserved slavery, the Left lost it and hit the culture-panic button. MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid huffed, “It plays to a rather concrete American fantasy: slavery that never ends, becoming a permanent state for black people. Repugnant.” If Reid were tweeting about 1984, she’d probably say it “promotes totalitarian fantasies about rewriting history and dominating people’s minds. Appalling.”
The New York Times op-ed page placed the following headline on a piece by writer Roxane Gay: “I don’t want to watch slavery fan fiction.” Are Robert Harris’s novel Fatherland and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle “Nazi fan fiction” because they imagined what life would be like had Germany won World War II? Gay said in her piece, “Each time I see a reimagining of the Civil War that largely replicates what actually happened, I wonder why people are expending the energy to imagine that slavery continues to thrive when we are still dealing with the vestiges of slavery in very tangible ways.” Gay is being amazingly obtuse here, because the proposition that “we are still dealing with the vestiges of slavery in very tangible ways” is, as you might have guessed and as we have already learned, the central theme of the show. I’ll come back to that.
Reid also blasted Confederate for being “the brainchild of two white men,” David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, whose current hit Game of Thrones, which is set in a world modeling medieval England, “has few people of color to speak of.” Gay added, “I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands.” Actor David Harewood of Homeland and Supergirl tweeted, “Good luck finding black actors for this project,” as though playing a character is tantamount to an endorsement of that character’s behavior or the setting in which he exists.
Race these days is a kind of mental high-voltage power surge that is short-circuiting people’s minds. Do these writers really lack the imagination to see what creative direction Confederate is going to take? Every character, scene, and line of dialogue is going to be scrutinized, double-checked, and triple-checked to make sure it sends the message that white supremacy is evil. The primary creative risk for Confederate is not, as many commenters fear, that it will amount to alt-right white-supremacy porn but that it’ll be so focused on being the opposite of that it will keep pounding the same chords over and over. It’ll be so single-mindedly determined to prove it is on the morally correct side that it might be didactic and repetitive. A creative project that is principally concerned with selling the audience a political message (even one as unexceptionable as opposition to racism) risks being more of a sermon than a story.
HBO’s marquee Sunday-night shows don’t usually betray much of a political agenda, but lefties need not worry about its progressive bona fides. Ignoring the poor performance of documentaries in the marketplace, it has made a serious effort to make, acquire, and promote nonfiction films, most of which carry an unmistakable left-wing message. Do Confederate’s detractors really think HBO is about to take a leap into Klan territory? Do they imagine Weiss and Benioff are too dumb to know that racism is a sensitive subject? Are they alive in this country at this moment?
When Weiss and Benioff came up with the idea, just about the first thing they did was call up two black writers they had never before worked with and ask them to join the project. Those writers, the husband-and wife team of Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, have written for The Good Wife and Empire respectively. Malcolm Spellman suggested to fellow black writers that they take note that he vigorously agrees with their anti-racist agenda: “There are no sellouts involved in this show,” he said. “Me and Nichelle are not props being used to protect someone else. We are people who feel a need to address issues the same way they do.” Benioff hastened to add that he and Weiss would be collaborating with the Spellmans, not “bossing them around.” Annoyed that he had to spell out the obvious purpose of the show, Malcolm Spellman offered this corrective to the chorus of the confused who fret that Confederate will create a safe space for white supremacists:
What people need to recognize is, and it makes me really want to get into the show: The s**t is alive and real today. I think people have got to stop pretending that slavery was something that happened and went away. The s**t 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 s**t 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 f****d up things are today, and a story that allows us to now dramatize it in a more tangible matter.
That the Confederacy prevailed in the War Between the States is only the hook for Confederate. What the show will really be about is how institutionalized racism won even as Dixie went down. If the outrage from the likes of Reid and Gay succeeds in shaming HBO into canceling the show, they’ll be killing off a project that’s bound to support their point of view.