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HBO Slave Drama 'Confederate' Stirs Up Controversy

The concern led by some black activists, thought leaders and writers is very real.

07/28/2017 14:24 EDT | Updated 07/28/2017 14:31 EDT

Earlier this week "Game of Thrones" creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced a new project which will begin filming after GoT wraps. The new series "Confederate" is a slave drama about civil wars, but not the Civil War. The backdrop of this alternate reality is a modern nation where slavery has evolved into a legal and institutionalized practice, which ultimately leads to the Third American Civil War.

Social media was buzzing with criticism almost immediately after the announcement of the project. The concern led by some black activists, thought leaders and writers is very real.

Activist and artist Bree Newsome told The Hollywood Reporter:

"What makes the premise fundamentally problematic is that it threatens to erase the actual history. There has been so much deliberate mis-education around the Civil War, and this basically rewrites black history of the past 150 years. We combat racism through educating people on history, so it's dangerous to present alternative histories when people are still not clear on the facts."

Meanwhile, HBO programming president Casey Bloys spent much of his time on Wednesday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour defending the decision to move forward with the controversial slave drama.

Looking back, Bloys said he would have done things differently than to make the original announcement with a press release:

"File this under hindsight is 20-20. ... The idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive, and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers, in a press release was misguided on our part...We assumed it'd be controversial. I think we could have done a better job with the press rollout. ... What we realized in retrospect is people don't have the benefit of having the context of the conversations with the producers that we had." "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," he said. "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."

While I understand Bloys' viewpoint, I think this is far too dangerous a fire to fuel, and moreover feel that as creators of art we need to start seeing people of colour in more imaginative ways. Why does the Indian man repeatedly play the taxi driver, the Middle Eastern man the terrorist, the Black man the slave? Is it so difficult to envision people of colour through a wider lens?

There is a fatigue and frustration in the way in which black characters are continually portrayed.

"When it comes to fictional universes, black people are shut out and prevented from going into other realms," says Richard Newby, executive editor of the film criticism site Audiences Everywhere.

Alberto E. Rodriguez via Getty Images
Actor Andy Serkis, director Ryan Coogler, actors Forest Whitaker, Michael B. Jordan, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright from Marvel Studios' "Black Panther" at the San Diego Comic-Con International 2017 Marvel Studios Panel on July 22, 2017.

"When slavery becomes the dominant image of a people in pop culture, that's what black people become associated with. I don't think that's beneficial to anyone to continue to suggest that this is the only kind of story where our lives matter."

One of the reasons "Black Panther" is receiving such an overwhelmingly positive response is because it embraces the concept of Afrofuturism — imagining black people in futuristic or sci-fi worlds that heavily incorporate elements of black culture into the fantasy. When it comes to fantasy, the sprawl of characters is overwhelmingly white. Its tough enough finding studios interested in depicting black characters in non sci-fi roles. Remember Idris Elba as James Bond? No? Oh that's right, that hasn't happened. When it comes to fantasy and sci-fi, the opportunities for black characters become even more dismal.

Back to "Confederate." Instead of dungeons and dragons, the creators have dreamed up the Third American Civil War. The modern institution of slavery...it sounds ugly and as you can imagine, the controversy it stirs can get even uglier. I don't know if a show like this can be done right. It may have the intention to create constructive racial dialogue that has been far too long pent up in America, but as Bloys himself acknowledges, the show is "weapons-grade material."

In an interview with Vulture, Benioff and Weiss, along with fellow "Confederate" writers, African-American husband-and-wife team Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, also defended the project and urged those upset to wait until they see the series before casting judgment. "It's just a little premature," Benioff said about the initial "outrage" surrounding the series. "You know, we might fuck it up. But we haven't yet."

Art Streiber

However, Malcolm Spellman also raised a striking point on the current political climate given the Trump administration and why issues in a show like "Confederate"are so relevant and need to be deeply discussed again. "People have got to stop pretending that slavery was something that happened and went away. The shit is affecting people in the present day," he said. "But everyone knows that with Trump coming into power, a bunch of shit that had always been there got resurfaced."

There is no premiere date set for "Confederate" yet, but no doubt the debate around it will continue until then. Who knows, maybe those Big Little Lies execs will stir up a more culturally evolved series in the meantime — now that would be magic.

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