HBO’s ‘Confederate’: Here’s Hoping It’s Better than ‘Game of Thrones’

Like it or not, HBO’s Confederate is happening.

Announced last week, the sci-fi drama is set on an alternate timeline where the South has successfully seceded from the Union — seceded from the Union, not won the Civil War, a difference the producers emphasize — and takes place during the third Civil War. In this version of the United States, slavery is still legal and has evolved into a modern day institution. Confederate was co-created by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Benioff and Weiss will act as writers/executive producers along with wife and husband Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire), both of whom are Black. Game of Thrones producers Carolyn Strauss and Bernadette Caufield will also be serving as executive producers.

For good reason, many are outraged about the project — ask Black Twitter if you don’t believe me. The problematics of the premise itself are debatable*, but what’s not debatable is the inappropriateness of Benioff and Weiss writing and producing a show about modern slavery. These aren’t just any two white men. They, as well as Strauss and Caufield, are responsible for Game of Thrones — a show so rife with misogyny and racism that I couldn’t watch beyond episode one. These men producing this show, especially given the current state of our nation, is insensitive to say the least. It sounds like exploitation. It sounds like white supremacist porn. It sounds like white people profiting from Black pain. Despite the Spellman’s presence on the creative team, the show will be tainted by the perspective of a white gaze.

Why this premise anyway? Why do we need another project about slavery? Why are Black folks consistently denied space to heal without having to relive the pain of our history at every turn? We don’t need an alternate history because slavery is still alive and well in the U.S. prison industrial complex — which, of course, grew directly out of slavery. The South didn’t even need to secede.

I can’t not be skeptical, but I’ll admit that I am attempting to remain hopeful. Benioff and Weiss had enough forethought to acknowledge that they needed Black voices on the project and asked the Spellman’s — their decade-long friends — to participate. Now, don’t get me wrong. The presence of Black folks on the creative team doesn’t make the project less problematic. The critiques of Confederate are still valid. It’s possible (and not at all unlikely) that Benioff and Weiss simply brought in their Black friends to help quell the inevitable controversy. That being said, I don’t want to write the Spellman’s off as tokens just yet. In fact, in an interview with Vulture, in which all four creatives address the backlash, Malcolm negates this claim: “[T]here are no sellouts involved in this show. Me and Nichelle are not props being used to protect someone else.”

Malcolm Spellman
[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Malcolm Spellman smiling, facing front, looking off to his right, seen from the chest up, holding a red plastic cup, wearing a Nike cap.]

The Black community has every reason to distrust HBO, Benioff, and Weiss, but I want to believe that we have reason to have faith in the Spellman’s as well. I want to believe that they’ll call BS when they see it and won’t simply roll over and obey Benioff and Weiss’ every order. I want to believe we can trust such a project in their hands. Tokens or not, I don’t want to assume that they have no agency. In the Vulture interview, Malcolm further states:

What people need to recognize is, and it makes me really want to get into the show: The shit is alive and real today. I think people have got to stop pretending that slavery was something that happened and went away.

Nichelle speaks of their desire to “draw parallels between what has been described as America’s original sin to a present-day conversation.” Given their statements, it’s clear the Spellman’s are well intentioned. They understand the gravity of the project and just how close to home this hits for Black folks. 

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Nichelle Tramble Spellman smiling, facing front, seen from the shoulders up.]

As I have said, I’m attempting to be hopeful. As of now, there is no script, no character names, no outline. Meaning there is time for criticisms to be heard and listened to. Time to ensure that Confederate isn’t a hot mess. There is no way for the show to escape the white perspective, but I am hopeful that when pen is put to paper, that the Black perspective is taken seriously and given due respect. Hopeful that the Spellman’s will ensure that Confederate tells a compelling story without pandering to whiteness, trivializing slavery, or exploiting Black pain. Hopeful that the Spellman’s can accomplish their goal of facilitating dialogue on racism and oppression without being hindered by white execs. I am still outraged, still angry, still wary, but hopeful nonetheless.

*The premise of the show would be less problematic if it were solely in the hands of Black creatives, but even then I wouldn’t be convinced of the necessity of such a show. 
Regardless of who the creators are, I don’t think we are ready for this alternate history. Our wounds are still too fresh.

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