In Defense Of 'Confederate'


When HBO announced several weeks ago that it had plans to produce a TV series which imagines a United States where slavery still exists, the reaction was predictable and fast moving. Within a day, the "Confederate" creators David Benioff and DB Weiss - along with "Confederate" writers/executive producers husband and wife Nichelle Tramble Spellman ("The Good Wife") and Malcolm Spellman ("Empire") - gave an interview to Vulture's Joe Adalian, attempting to explain why they should be trusted with such a sensitive subject. Other interviews followed, but by last week the Internet seemed filled with hot takes on why "Confederate" was the worst idea since

Activist April Reign, the woman behind the successful #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign has launched a grassroots effort to convince HBO to shut down the idea while it is still in the earliest of planning stages. The no #NoConfederate hashtag has proved successful in social media terms and it's sparked a number of thoughtful pieces which ask HBO to reconsider their decision. Reading any of those pieces, it's easy to imagine a scenario in which HBO decides to shut down the project, apologize and perform some heartfelt move of contrition.

And yet I hope they decide to move forward with "Confederate."

To be clear, I'm not convinced it's possible to produce a show with this premise that won't become hopelessly bogged down in creative compromises imposed from the outside. It's also possible the show will just be a culturally tone-deaf disaster. And for that matter, if I was one of the showrunners for "Game For Thrones," I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have chosen this alt-history idea as my next project.

But all of this furor is centered around an idea that seems to be in the earliest of planning stages. There's no cast, no footage, it appears there isn't even much in the way of actual scripts to examine. There are just a lot of people angry about HBO even considering a TV show with this premise.

I'm an old white guy who was born in Indiana. I've lived a pretty cosmopolitan life, but I accept that I had absolutely no idea how I'd respond to "Confederate" if I was an African-American. And if you are repulsed by the idea, if you see it as some sort of slavery porn designed to take advantage of other people's pain, I completely understand. I don't have the right to comment on your anger, your pain and your frustration with the situation.

What I do want to comment on are some of the reasons being given for why "Confederate" should never happen.

In Atlantic, Ta-Neshi Coates argues "Confederate" would be the latest in a century-long string of Hollywood projects advancing the "Lost Cause" myth of the Civil War:

These are true “alternative histories,” built on “alternative facts,” assembled to depict the Confederacy as a wonderland of virtuous damsels and gallant knights, instead of the sprawling kleptocratic police state it actually was. From last century’s The Birth of a Nation to this century’s Gods and Generals, Hollywood has likely done more than any other American institution to obstruct a truthful apprehension of the Civil War, and thus modern America’s very origins. So one need not wait to observe that any foray by HBO into the Civil War must be met with a spirit of pointed inquiry and a withholding of all benefit of the doubt.

Skepticism must be the order of the day. So that when Benioff asks “what would the world have looked like...if the South had won,” we should not hesitate to ask what Benioff means by "the South." He obviously does not mean the minority of  white Southern unionists, who did win. And he does not mean those four million enslaved blacks, whom the Civil War ultimately emancipated, yet whose victory was tainted. Comprising 40 percent of the Confederacy’s population, this was the South’s indispensable laboring class, its chief resource, its chief source of wealth, and the sole reason why a Confederacy existed in the first place. But they are not the subject of Benioff’s inquiry, because he is not so much asking about “the South” winning, so much as he is asking about "the white South" winning.

Well...yes. Of course that's what he means. What would the South have look like if the institutions and government which overtly supported slavery existed in a modern-day context? What impact would modern manufacturing and technology have on a society built on the pain and suffering of others? It's easy to imagine all sorts of complex and nuanced outcomes, ranging from a South African-style Apartheid to a country where the vast population of slaves throw off their chains in a Second Civil War and forcefully expel the white population of the South. There are compelling stories to explore here, but Coates is right, this is an alt-history for that "non-woke" slice of the American population.

Coates makes a valid point that for African-Americans, the legacy of the Civil War is still fresh and unsettled. Widespread racism continues to be a fact of life in the United States and the fact it's often bubbling below the surface doesn't make it any less oppressive. But like a number of other "Confederate" critics, he wants to see the project through a modern-day lens and that's not always the right approach:

And one need not wait to ask if Benioff and D.B. Weiss are, at any rate, the candidates to help lead us out of that morass or deepen it. A body of work exists in the form of their hit show Game of Thrones. We do not have to wait to note the persistent criticism of that show is its depiction of rape. Rape—generational rape, mass rape—is central to the story of enslavement. For 250 years the bodies of enslaved black women were regarded as property, to be put to whatever use—carnal and otherwise—that their enslavers saw fit. Why HBO believes that this duo, given their past work, is the best team to revisit that experience is a question one should not wait to ask.

You could write an entire book about "Game Of Thrones" and how it handles the issue of rape. While I don't agree with all of their creative decisions on the subject, the show takes place at a time when woman were often thought of as little more than chattel. It's uncomfortable to consider and I'm not convinced the viewer needs to be hit over the head with that reality. But for "Game Of Thrones," the question isn't whether its depictment of rape is factually correct. It's whether it handles those scenes in a way that is mindful of the need not to use those scenes as simply emotional porn. These are horrible events, and even in a morally corrupt society, evil has its costs to the soul.

As Coates argues, rape is central to the story of slavery in the United States. And there are so many ways this aspect of the "Confederate" story could go horribly, horribly wrong.

But the truth is that we have no idea how rape - along with any of the myriad of other evil deeds committed in the name of slavery - will be handled by the show. I understand why Coates feels he can't trust the ability of people associated with "Confederate" to be thoughtful and respectful of the challenges inherent in the project. But I take heart in the possibilities for the show based on comments African-American writer/producer Nichelle Tramble Spellman made in that Vulture interview:

And immediately what the conversation turned into is how we could draw parallels between what has been described as America’s original sin to a present-day conversation. 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. And what was also exciting to me was the idea that in order to build this, we would have to rebuild world history … Okay, if this had happened here, how did the rest of the world change? That was another huge bonus factor for me — the idea of rewriting some of the history of, like, the French Revolution. What happened in the entire world if that one event had ended differently?

For me, I believe art can rise above its inspirations and can be a source of possible enlightenment to the thickest of heads. If "Confederate" turns out to be a grab bag of white Civil War tropes, then I'm more than willing to admit I'm wrong and argue that the show never air again. Unlike Coates, I just have more faith in the process. I am conscious of the fact as a white guy I can afford to have more faith in the show than many of its critics. But while I respect their qualms, I also have to retain my beliefs. I'm willing to listen to why I'm wrong. But I'm not going to oppose the show just because I'm expected to do so.

At this point in the lifespan of "Confederate," I'm more willing to trust the vision of Spellman and the rest of the creative team than the bleak musings of essayist Roxane Gay, who recently suggested in the NY Times the show is really a reflection of white Hollywood's lack of imagination about the consequences of white history:

This show’s premise highlights the limits of the imagination in a world where oppression thrives. These creators can imagine a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War and black people are still enslaved, but they can’t or aren’t interested in imagining a world where, say, things went in a completely different direction after the Civil War and, say, white people are enslaved. Or a world where slavery never happened at all. What would happen in a show where American Indians won the conflicts in which they were embroiled as the British and French and other European nations colonized this country? What would happen if Mexicans won the Mexican-American War and Texas and California were still part of Mexico?"

In fact, "Confederate" could tackle many of these possible histories. There's just no way to know at this juncture. In fact, some of her ideas have already been tackled in other alt-history projects. But the story of a triumphant American Indian culture is less creatively challenging than one which tackles slavery. And to be honest, I suspect the potential dangers of the project are what drew Benioff, Weiss and the Spellmans to "Confederate." It's a project filled with potential landmines and there are so very many ways it would explode into a cloud of dust on the way to the TV screen.

But this is a project filled with possibilities. Any writer will tell you that it is often easier to change minds and enlighten the viewer by approaching evil from a tangent. Alt-histories are an often-utilized artistic choice and it could certainly work in this context. Whether it does or not is really at the core of how "Confederate" will be judged when and/or if it ever airs.

I want to make one last point about "Confederate" and perhaps this is most compelling reason why I believe it deserves to be made. Many of the people arguing against the project have mentioned some variation of the Trump's people excuse. At a a time filled with such anger and racism, at a time when the presidency of Donald Trump seems to embody the worst of America, how can we risk producing a show in which the South won? Isn't this just going to be some sort of racist, hillbilly fantasy extravaganza? Isn't there a risk that some viewers will see this outcome as a good thing?

My answer to that is: fuck them.

We have a Trump administration in part because we worried too much about blow-back from critics. We were afraid to stand up for the values we believed in while being afraid to confront the evils of our society. Even if there's a chance "Confederate" could be a beacon of hope for racists, I am not going to allow the worst of us to define who we are and what sort of stories we should tackle.

Let HBO make "Confederate" and let's see what happens. I believe in the essential moral clarity of the Benioff, Weiss and the Spellmans, along with HBO. I'm not going to live my life worried about what comfort the most small-minded of us might draw from the show. Their views don't dictate how I live my life or the decisions I make about the art I create or consume.

As for the concerns from the show's many critics, I'm respectful of their misgivings. I hope they are wrong and I respect their efforts to derail "Confederate." But as for me, I'm willing to give the show a chance. I believe dangerous times requires dangerous artistic visions. And based on the feedback for just the idea of "Confederate," this could be a very dangerous project indeed.

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