What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War?
For Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, this question conjures not a nightmare, but an opportunity: It is a premise they think is worthy of exploration in their next HBO drama. For the follow-up to their massively successful (and not uncontroversial) adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, the two men—both of whom are white — announced their plans to dramatize an America in which the South successfully seceded from the Union, “giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” Woven into this narrative will be characters on either side of “the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone,” including “freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”
Backlash to the show’s unveiling was swift and explosive, so much so that Benioff and Weiss, along with executive producers and writers Malcolm and Nichelle Tremble Spellman, gave an interview to Vulture the day after the news went public, scrambling to respond to the outrage their press release sparked. April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, coined #NoConfederate, rallying Twitter troops to use the hashtag during Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones to “send a message to HBO.” The time to be heard, she said, is now, “before the show has been written or cast” and before HBO has made a major financial investment. For most of the hourlong episode, #NoConfederate was the number one trending topic on Twitter in the United States, number two worldwide.
— April (@ReignOfApril) July 28, 2017
Following the #NoConfederate campaign Sunday night, HBO issued a statement:
We have great respect for the dialogue and concern being expressed around Confederate. We have faith that [writers] Nichelle, Dan, David and Malcolm will approach the subject with care and sensitivity. The project is currently in its infancy so we hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see.
One wonders what Benioff, Weiss, and HBO executives expected the reaction to this announcement to be. Did they think they would be insulated from backlash by the presence of two black executive producers and writers, the husband-and-wife team of Malcolm Spellman (Empire) and Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife)? Did they think the attention would trigger minimal backlash and ultimately serve as free promotion for the upcoming show? Or did they wildly misjudge how they, as showrunners, are perceived by the general public?
Benioff told Vulture that they anticipated the negative response — “We all knew it was coming in one form or another” — but it seems like any reasonable person who anticipated a nationwide campaign to have their show canceled before a single frame is shot would have recalibrated. Benioff later elaborated on the rough-draft-status of the project: “We haven’t written any scripts yet. We don’t have an outline yet. We don’t even have character names. So, everything is brand-new and nothing’s been written. I guess that’s what was a little bit surprising about some of the outrage. It’s just a little premature. You know, we might fuck it up. But we haven’t yet.”
“We haven’t yet” is an interesting choice of words for Benioff who, along with Weiss, has had ample opportunity to show audiences exactly what kind of storyteller he is. One could argue — as many of those calling for Confederate’s early cancellation have — that Benioff and Weiss have not proven they are the duo to be trusted with what Malcolm Spellman described as “weapons-grade material.”
give me the confidence of white showrunners telling hbo they wanna write slavery fanfic
— pilot (@pilotbacon) July 19, 2017
Though insanely popular (it’s the highest-rated show on cable and even counts Barack Obama as a superfan), GoT has been controversial from the start. Viewers have long railed against, and quit the show over, its depictions of women — extras milling about naked for no apparent reason, central female characters raped on the regular — and sexual violence. The show’s myriad sexual assault scenes, the critique goes, are gratuitous, and shot in a way that suggests the encounters are erotic and not harrowing. In the case of Sansa Stark, whose wedding night rape scene sparked significant outrage, some viewers were disgusted that the framing of the scene emphasized a male character’s reaction to witnessing the assault, not Sansa’s experience being victimized. One violent sex scene between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, which critics described as rape, was not called as much by the episode’s male director Alex Graves, who said the assault was “consensual by the end.”
How does Game of Thrones portray of characters of color? The short answer is: Barely. This is a show with over 500 characters, and has only managed to find space in its massive universe for two named characters who aren’t white: Missandei and Grey Worm. (Khal Drogo, the only other significant character of color, died several seasons ago. Also, he was a rapist.) There are literally more dragons than there are black people on Game of Thrones.
Even if Confederate is a worthy enterprise — debatable, obviously — the critical response is that Benioff and Weiss have not proven themselves as capable of undertaking it. As Roxane Gay wrote in the New York Times, “I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands.”
Maybe, as Benioff and Weiss must believe in order to pursue this project, theirs is an intriguing premise. But, to quote Gay again, “as is often the case with interesting premises, at what cost?” A premise like this one is perhaps only a fun thought experiment if you are basically unaffected by the outcome. As Gay wrote, this “alternate” history is not so “alternate”:
We are still dealing with the vestiges of slavery in very tangible ways. Those vestiges are visible in incarceration rates for black people, a wildly segregated country, disparities in pay and mortality rates and the ever-precarious nature of black life in a world where it can often seem as if police officers take those lives with impunity…
It is curious that time and again, when people create alternate histories, they are largely replicating a history we already know, and intimately. They are replicating histories where whiteness thrives and people of color remain oppressed.
The backlash to Confederate is not about the concept alone, though as what ifs go, the one at the heart of Confederate is a dicey one at best. It appears to assume some simplistic opposites: Slavery was abolished, therefore, in this “alternate” history, slavery endures. But little about slavery is simple, from its inception to its abolition by law and beyond. Remnants of the Confederacy live on in statues, flags, and street names the nation over; when such monuments are toppled, it is rarely without resistance. As 13th, Ava Duvernay’s recent Oscar-winning documentary on mass incarceration methodically insists, the prison industrial complex is just slavery by another name, and it is thriving.
But if, to imagine another alternate history, Duvernay, or Shonda Rhimes, or John Ridley, or Gina Prince-Bythewood, or another trusted black storyteller were to announce a similar show, it’s possible that the response would have been a little less “hell no” and a little more “…well, let’s wait and see.” As far as audience faith goes, the presence of the Spellmans is clearly not enough to outweigh that of Benioff and Weiss. Benioff and Weiss’ argument thus far — essentially, don’t hate a show we haven’t even made yet — misses the point. For the #NoConfederate crowd, Benioff and Weiss are the issue. There is no version of Confederate with these two white men at the helm that will pass muster.
HBO has a reputation for allowing its showrunners tremendous creative freedom. This is both how you get something as riveting and out-there as the first season of True Detective and how you get something as abysmal and unwatchable as the second season of True Detective. It is also, it seems, how you get something like this: A half-baked idea that even HBO brass now admit wasn’t ready for prime time when it was announced.
While Benioff and Weiss are responsible for bringing Martin’s vision to the screen, this Confederate news is a useful reminder that GoT is just that: Martin’s vision. It is not Benioff and Weiss who are responsible for conjuring GoT’s sprawling universe, its cache of otherworldly creatures, its magic. Their task was not that of innovation, really, but translation.
Coming off the stunning critical and commercial success of GoT, combined with the freedom HBO tends to grant even its untested creators, Benioff and Weiss are in a rare, remarkable position in the entertainment industry: They can do whatever they want. It is telling that, called upon to come up with a series of their very own, Confederate was the best they could do. Given the extraordinary opportunity to tell any story about anyone or anything, their curiosity led them here: Imagining an America even more racist than the one in which we already live.
Research by Bell Thompson.