Three weeks ago, HBO announced that it had greenlit Confederate, a new show from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B Weiss that depicts an alternative history in which the South seceded from the Union to create their own nation, never abolished slavery, and are prepping for a “Third American Civil War.”
The news sparked a political firestorm of mixed reactions on social media. There were think pieces from The Atlantic, The National Review and NPR, with the New York Times’ Roxana Gay calling it “slavery fan fiction.” A few celebrities, like Judd Apatow, tweeted support for the show: “Censorship is never a good idea. They haven’t even written a word. Seems a tad early to judge their work and intentions.” But the protests that have accompanied the Confederate news are not censorship. They are cries from Americans who value freedom of speech and are simply using their voices to protest the premise of this series — a series that may get made at the expense of an even better show that isn’t built on the backs of an offensive alt-history.
Censorship is defined as “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.” The definition implies that a person or persons in power are trying to stop a piece of work from being made, seen or heard. But that’s not the case here. HBO president Casey Bloys made it very clear that he is all-in on Confederate. He recently defended it at the Television Critics Association press tour by highlighting the lofty ambitions of the show, telling reporters: “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 draw a direct line to our past, that’s an important line to draw, and a conversation worth having.” In other words, he believes that this show will tackle the current state of race relations in this country on its own terms. So, there’s no censorship happening here. We will all get to see and judge the final product at some point.
Now, I understand why some people are claiming that the organized Twitter protest #NoConfederate came off like censorship. The protest was organized by Rebecca Theodore, Shanelle Little, Lauren Warren and Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds.* The critics of the #NoConfederate protest feel that as a society, we’ve become too reactionary, and that difficult subject matter is being curbed by Hollywood because an overwhelming rush to judgment from fans has made creators afraid of not being PC. They’re even upset about the #NoConfederate hashtag on Twitter. Let that sink in for a moment. The show’s defenders are upset about a hashtag on Twitter. Remind me who’s overreacting here again? The truth is that voicing dissent and disagreeing with a corporation’s premise for a TV show is not censorship. I count myself among the critics, and we’re just exercising our right to free speech, as outlined in the First Amendment. As HBO subscribers and potential viewers, we have a right to voice our anger, disgust, support, or joy regarding any TV show premise, and to suggest otherwise is downright un-American.
Now that we’ve settled that, let’s examine why people are angry and resentful about this idea. From the outset, HBO botched its initial unveiling of Confederate, which was announced via an impersonal press release. Bloys and others associated with the show have been doing mea culpas in their follow-up interviews ever since, as they now realize that the network had trumpeted the Game of Thrones credentials of Confederate‘s two white male show creators, Benioff and Weiss, while not beating the drum loudly enough for the show’s two black writers and executive producers, Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire), who were introduced almost as an afterthought.
While that’s somewhat understandable given Benioff and Weiss’s track record, the optics of this misstep reinforced people’s worst fears about the project, unfairly or not. It’s not terribly surprising that this majority-white production team (the other two non-writing EPs on the project are also white, in addition to Bloys) didn’t seem to understand how to deftly handle the sensitive and complex nature of the polarizing subject matter. By indirectly relegating the Spellmans to second billing, it felt like HBO was treating them as second-class citizens on the production, which is exactly what they expressly stated they were not going to do with the characters on the show.
In an interview with NPR, Malcolm Spellman agreed that the “rollout just wasn’t right,” but he pushed back at this notion that HBO didn’t see them as equals on the project. “Regardless of how awkwardly that press release was phrased, we are involved as peers, as full executive producers and as partners. If you render us a footnote, the assumption is that we’re just a prop or a shield… Our own people marginalized us like that.” We’ll have to wait to see the extent of their contributions to the show, and whether they stay on the project for its duration.
Still, this was a lost opportunity for HBO, as bringing someone with a socially-conscious voice (like Ava DuVernay, for example) on as an EP would have been a step in the right direction. After all, her recent Oscar-nominated documentary 13th explored race relations in the U.S. through the eyes of the prison system, and having a well-known activist/filmmaker spearheading a divisive project like this would have been a strong sign of HBO’s intent to get Confederate’s premise right. Instead of going the extra mile to navigate a tricky PR minefield, the network rushed its announcement (getting ahead of a rival project at Amazon) and misstepped, only to see it blow up in their face.
The Confederate protests also seem to stem from the project’s intention to use the well-trod and tired convention of slavery as the backdrop for exploring current race relations in America. We’ve already seen media from Roots and Glory to Amistad and 12 Years A Slave to WGN America’s recently-cancelled Underground use slavery to tackle this very subject, which is as timely as it has ever been. HBO is arguing that Confederate is a new approach to this issue, pointing out that the South successfully secedes, builds its own nation, and modernizes slavery in its proposed show. But this premise was already explored in the fantastic and criminally under-seen 2004 mockumentary The Confederate States of America, from black filmmaker Kevin Willmott. That film examines America through the eyes of a fictional British TV crew and relays how the South won the Civil War, maintained slavery, and dictated the retelling of certain historical events from a Confederate perspective as it explores race relations all the way up until the early 2000s.
I’m not saying that Confederate doesn’t have a right to exist as a TV show, because it does. I just think HBO blew a genuine opportunity to explore race relations in our country on a tougher, grittier and ultimately more dangerous scale, as the network’s current approach seems a little too easy right now.
For example, take that Amazon series, which hails The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and is titled Black America. According to Deadline, it “envisions an alternate history where newly freed African Americans have secured the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama post-Reconstruction as reparations for slavery, and with that land, the freedom to shape their own destiny. The sovereign nation they formed, New Colonia, has had a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with its looming “Big Neighbor,” both ally and foe, the United States. The past 150 years have been witness to military incursions, assassinations, regime change, coups, etc. Today, after two decades of peace with the U.S. and unprecedented growth, an ascendant New Colonia joins the ranks of major industrialized nations on the world stage as America slides into rapid decline. Inexorably tied together, the fate of two nations, indivisible, hangs in the balance.”
Now that sounds like a groundbreaking show that will explore race relations from multiple angles, given the wealth of possibilities inherent in the premise. See, there is room to learn, explore and grow in new and exciting ways, but the big difference between these two alt-history series is their networks, HBO and Amazon.
Amazon is still building its entertainment carbon footprint (and is no stranger to controversial alt-history shows, given The Man In the High Castle), but HBO is an established entity that doesn’t want to risk upsetting its largely white, affluent audience with a show that might feature the United States in a negative light. I can only imagine the protests if they announced the premise for a show like Black America at their next shareholders meeting. I wonder if those protests would be considered censorship as well?
I’m not trying to bash HBO or deny its right to make Confederate. They have a history of making shows aimed at black viewers like The Wire, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Treme and more recently, Insecure. If you were feeling generous, you might even throw in Ballers, True Blood and Oz as well. I just think the network is taking the safe route here. By subtly courting the alt-right crowd and the liberal crowd with a show that imagines a nation under majority white rule, HBO is trying to have its cake and eat it too as it bends over backwards not to upset their white subscribers regardless of where they lie on the political spectrum.
Of course HBO isn’t going to try and show slavery or slave owners in a good light, but the network and specifically Benioff and Weiss do have a history of redeeming horrible characters on a show. Jamie Lannister was an incestuous, child-crippling horror of a person for two seasons, and there were more than a few of us who felt bad for Cersei during her literal walk of shame(!), even after all she’d done on Game of Thrones. And let’s not pretend like Benioff and Weiss haven’t seen a backlash over their treatment of black characters and the amount of women who are raped on their show.
It’s not “censorship” to voice displeasure at a premise any more than it is “censorship” to complain about a casting decision on your favorite film project. The protests won’t stop HBO from moving forward with Confederate, but the backlash just might serve to encourage the creators and production team to be even more vigilant in getting the show right. And that could work out in the favor of all the parties concerned here. But first, they have to listen.
*This article has been updated to include the organizer names of the #NoConfederate online protest.
John Steven Rocha is a host, actor and voiceover artist in LA. He currently hosts the Outlaw Nation and The Top 10 podcasts on the SK Plus channel and The Cine-Files podcast on iTunes. When he’s not doing that, he’s winning and losing belts as The Outlaw on the Movie Trivia Schmoedown. Feel free to send him a tweet or Instagram post at @TheRochaSays.