Confederate: Controversial new series from Game of Thrones creators slammed by anti-slavery campaign

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If you hopped onto social media in the last few days to chat about the latest episode of HBO’s mega-fantasy epic Game of Thrones from this Sunday past, you may have noticed something odd: Many of the Twitter and Facebook comments about the show all bore the hashtag #NoConfederate. Exactly how many? Enough to have it trend at no.1 in the US and no.2 worldwide. But what is #noconfederate about?

This is a massive social media campaign begun by April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, that has sprung up in response to HBO greenlighting a brand new drama series from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss that has drawn heaps of criticism since its announcement a few weeks back. Titled Confederate, this is an alternate history drama set in an America in which the US Civil War did not go as we know it. Instead, the Southern States managed to successfully secede from the Union, resulting in a brand new sovereign nation in which slavery and the abuse of black Americans was never abolished and continued through to modern times. The story is set to follow a huge cast on either side of what has become known as the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, journalists, slave hunters, abolitionists, slave-owning conglomerates and more – as it leads up to the “Third American Civil War”.

Now I’m a fan of alternate history tales, with things like Robert Harris’s Fatherland being right up there in terms of my favourite examples of these. As such, I actually think there is potential here for a good drama. Here’s the thing though: These types of stories, especially one as racially charged as Confederate purports to be, and surrounded by the current political climate in the US, need to be handled with the most subtle of touches. Subtle is not a word often associated with Benioff and Weiss.

As acclaimed as Game of Thrones may be, the show has had several instances of backlash from audiences for its use of female rape as a narrative device. It also sparked controversy multiple times for its objectification of women. The term “sexposition” was famously coined in response to the show’s earlier seasons in which attractive females were randomly paraded around naked on screen or engaged in sexual acts without having any bearing whatsoever on the story as the male characters sat/stood around and talked. Benioff and Weiss have mostly eradicated these negative aspects from Game of Thrones since, but it still left a sour taste in the mouths of many over the years.

Oh and in case you somehow didn’t notice from the pic above, Benioff and Weiss are both white.

Personally, I’m a firm believer that a creator should not be disallowed from producing content simply because they do not belong to the same racial group, gender or social level as depicted in their story. However, it always favourable when the voice you give your creation is one with which you have personal experience. That can’t always be the case, so when this happens, it just means that creators need to be twice as careful about what they produce. Hell, ten times as careful when you’re a couple of white guys with sketchy pasts when it comes to the depiction of other social groups telling a story about black slavery in America.

If it was up to the #noconfederate campaigners though, they wouldn’t need to be careful at all as the show should be scrapped before it even began. That’s unlikely to happen, as HBO has already put in a direct order for the series. Joining Benioff and Weiss in producing and penning Confederate will be husband and wife writing duo Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife, Justified, Harper’s Island) – they’re both black in case you were wondering – who have since responded to the controversy (via THR) by explaining that “This is not a world in which the entire country is enslaved. Slavery is in one half of the country. And the North is the North. The imagery should be no whips and no plantations.”

HBO Head of Programming Casey Bloys also addressed the negativity around Confederate while talking to journalists during the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Defending what they’re doing with the show, Bloys did express regret in how some aspects of its announcement was handled, which only appended the Spellmans names as if they were an afterthought.

If I could do it over again, our mistake  — HBO’s mistake, not the producers’ — was thinking that we would be able to announce an idea that was so sensitive and require so much care in a press release.

Everyone understands there is a high degree of getting this right… If you can get it right, there is real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America. If you can draw a line between what we’re seeing in the country today with voter suppression, mass incarceration, lack of access to public education and healthcare and draw the line to our past and shared history, that’s an important line to draw and a conversation worth having. [The producers] acknowledge this has a high degree of difficulty. It’s a risk worth taking.

The producers have said they’re not looking to do Gone With the Wind 2017. It’s not whips and plantations. It’s what they imagine a modern-day institution of slavery would look like. These four writers are at the top of their game — they can do anything they want, and this is what they feel passionately about. I’ll bet on that.

There’s currently no release date set for Confederate – it’s still very early in the writing stages – but it will only debut after Benioff and Weiss wrap up Game of Thrones, so the first half of 2019 is a safe bet. That’s a fair amount of time to make sure this is handled as correctly as they can, and I sincerely hope they use all of it. What will be interesting to see though are the viewing numbers when it does debut. Will people actively boycott or tune in to see how “bad” it could be?

Last Updated: August 2, 2017

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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