“Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are the most esteemed producers on television, so when they proposed their next series to HBO -- “Confederate,” announced Wednesday -- there was apparently no reason by the network to question their judgment.
Instead, those questions arrived Thursday. A backlash against the series broke out on Twitter which denounced both series and network for re-imagining a world in which the south had won the Civil War, and one in which slavery persisted to this day. The series, “Confederate,” also promises to re-imagine another war between north and south.
Best-selling author Roxane Gay (“Bad Feminist”) tweeted, “It is exhausting to think of how many people at HBO said yes to letting two white men envision modern day slavery. And offensive.” Joy-Ann Reid, author and MSNBC commentator, tweeted: “It plays to a rather concrete American fantasy: slavery that never ends, becoming a permanent state for black people. Repugnant.”
Color of Change -- the influential and self-described “online racial justice organization” which lead a campaign to pull Bill O’Reilly off of Fox -- has also sought a meeting with HBO over the series. In a statement, its executive director, Rashad Robinson said, “A show with this premise is obviously something we have serious concerns about, which is why we are asking HBO to meet with us so we can learn more.”
The backlash was so intense that HBO took the highly unusual step of setting up interviews of Benioff and Weiss with influential website Vulture. Those interviews, conducted by Josef Adalian, appeared on the site Thursday night.
Other than the announcement Wednesday, little is known about “Confederate.” No scripts have been written, and the airdate remains far in the future, perhaps even years in the future (Weiss and Benioff remain tied to “GoT” through to conclusion; the final and eighth season is expected to air in 2018, but HBO has set no final date for that either.)
In the news release Wednesday, HBO said “‘Confederate’ chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone -- freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slaveholding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”
In the Vulture interview, both Weiss and Benioff -- who will coproduce the show with a pair of African-American TV writers, Nichelle Tramble Spellman and her husband, Malcolm Spellman, who were both also on the interview -- said they originally conceived the idea as a two-hour movie, then expanded from there.
Weiss said, “It goes without saying slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. And history doesn’t disappear. That sin is still with us in many ways. ‘Confederate,’ in all of our minds, will be an alternative history show. It’s a science-fiction show... It’s an ugly and a painful history, but we all think this is a reason to talk about it, not a reason to run from it. And this feels like a potentially valuable way to talk about it....”
Nichelle Spellman said that when she and her husband first discussed the series with Benioff and Weiss over lunch, “we made the joke, ‘Oh, this is going to be a black ‘Game of Thrones’ spinoff! This is gonna be awesome.’ And then (Benioff and Weiss) got into what the story was about, and I just remember being so excited -- and absolutely terrified at the same time.”
She added, “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.”
“Confederate,” conceivably, would be open-ended -- and serious -- which is where the problems begin, according to the detractors. And indeed, those problems are thorny and potentially combustible ones from a narrative standpoint: Under what circumstances would slavery persist into the present day? Would the South not have been isolated culturally and economically after such a “victory,” turning it into a Pyrrhic one in which the slave state would have inevitably, and perhaps, quickly collapsed anyway? Would slaves not have rebelled -- as they had done so often before -- or would “Confederate” re-imagine black Southerners as quiescent and submissive for 150 years?
Moreover, such a series could reopen wounds that never healed, notably the bitter legacy of slavery which persists to this day. Would “Confederate” somehow address those? How could it otherwise?
“Everything is brand-new and nothing’s been written,” Benioff told Vulture. “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 [expletive] up. But we haven’t yet.”