Controversial television shows and movies often stir an outcry from viewers, but rarely do they draw a backlash before the script is penned and the first frame of film is shot. Yet a mere press release from HBO two weeks ago announcing a new series by the writers and creators of its blockbuster “Game of Thrones” was enough to trigger a fierce blowback that continues to this day.
“Confederate” dares to imagine an alternate reality in which slavery remains legal in the South. In the series, which is set in the present day, the South has seceded from the Union and become a separate nation from the northern states, where slavery is outlawed.
The show has not even been written — and probably won’t appear on a TV screen for two more years — but it has already fueled outrage that’s stretched from opinion pages to Twitter, with critics deriding it as “slavery fan fiction” by two white male writers. April Reign, the creator of the memorable #OscarsSoWhite meme, launched a protest campaign on Twitter during last Sunday’s episode of “Game of Thrones” with her new hashtag, #NoConfederate. She is calling for people to tweet again during the next episode.
The litmus test for a TV show should not be whether it will appeal to deranged white supremacists.
So, now we are pre-protesting things we expect to offend us? That, in and of itself, is offensive. This backlash over something that not one person has seen (because there is nothing yet to see) is misplaced, misguided and, ultimately, corrosive to the artistic freedom and diversity that most of us — including, we would think, the “Confederate” critics — want to flourish in Hollywood.
There’s no question that HBO and the “Confederate” creators, David Benioff and D.B Weiss, are venturing into dangerous territory, mined with emotion. Slavery, as some pundits and poets have said, is this country’s original sin — one from which the nation has never earned full absolution. The onscreen efforts to capture just the historical truth of slavery have yielded mixed results, from the caricatures of “Gone With the Wind” to the brutal realism of “12 Years a Slave.”
“Confederate” will rewrite history freely, casting slavery as a modern-day institution. According to HBO’s press release, the series will follow characters on both sides of “the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone,” including freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians and the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate. (With some luck, it will also follow the lives of the slaves.) Benioff and Weiss will be joined on staff by married TV writer-producers Malcolm and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who are black. All four will be executive producers.
That offers little comfort to social critics skeptical that Benioff and Weiss, who were criticized for setting the soon-ending “Game of Thrones” series in an all-white world (except for the seasons that featured black slaves), will deftly portray a modern-day society that embraces slavery. They also worry that “Confederate” is being unleashed at a volatile political moment, when white racists seem to believe themselves empowered by President Trump’s election to say and do whatever they want.
Wrong creators, wrong time? Maybe. But it’s no more acceptable for people to urge HBO to reverse course and kill “Confederate” because its creators are white with no substantial track record of penning black characters than it would have been for people to urge Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, preemptively, not to back a movie Spike Lee planned to make about Italian Americans in the Bronx traumatized by the “Son of Sam” murders.
The point is that we don’t know how the writers will portray this world, and we don’t know what feelings the show will stir up. But frankly, the litmus test for a TV show should not be whether it will appeal to deranged white supremacists.
According to the producers, this will not be some antebellum pot-boiler. Nor does it sound like it will be “152 Years a Slave.” At its best, it could be a provocative TV show that spurs conversation about our history, our culture and our struggles today with ingrained racial bias. Or it could be a ridiculous flop that people won’t watch.
There might not even be all this outcry if Hollywood didn’t have a long history of keeping people of color out of the industry, both in front of and behind the camera. If dozens of shows starring nonwhite actors were on screen today telling a diverse slate of stories, a series like “Confederate” might not have engendered the alarm that it has on pre-arrival.
But Hollywood’s sorry track record does not make this protest of “Confederate” any less troubling. It’s unfair and smacks of censorship to call for the cancellation of a show that hasn’t even been filmed. Let’s see it before we decide whether to denounce it.