Art, Race, and HBO’s Confederate

While the third episode of the second-to-last season of Game of Thrones aired Sunday night, HBO was trending on Twitter for reasons seemingly unrelated to Westeros: series produces Benioff and Weiss were criticized for their forthcoming Confederate, an alternative U.S. history in which the South retains independence.

As with accusations that the showrunners failed to handle rape or race responsibly in Game of Thrones, HBO failed to handle the backlash responsibly. HBO blamed critics on not having the “benefit of the context of the conversations with producers” and the network blamed poorly written press-releases for not mentioning that Benioff’s and Weiss’s two co-writers are black. The network President even claimed that such a series might productively advance the national conversation on race. Malcom and Nichelle Spellman, the two black co-writers, have emphasized that they are not merely fronting for Benioff and Weiss and that they are genuinely excited about the concept, which won’t merely be a repetition of “whips and plantations.” As for historical foregrounding, Benioff himself identifies as a “history buff.” Ongoing critics are presumably to trust HBO that this combination of private conversations, two additional black writers, and Benioff’s hobby will produce a racially aware series. Besides HBO’s official responses, journalists and social media is making a handful of different appeals in support of the show: that we should give it a chance before judging it; that “art” should not be subject to the whims of public opinion; and the oft-repeated line that proactive rejection is merely symptomatic of oversensitivity.

The fact that the backlash against Confederate is thus far staged as one rooted in either aesthetic ignorance or over-sensitivity demonstrates that HBO – and its defenders – have little understanding of what is actually being “condemned.” Why is an alternative history of enslavement, primarily produced by two white writers with noted irresponsibility on social issues, being greenlighted over any number of possible alternatives – including those put forward by people of color? We might reasonably deduce that the success of Game of Thrones leads to a financially sound investment in Benioff and Weiss. But the mere addition of two black writers, a more developed variation of the “I have black friends” appeal, should not exempt the show from criticism.

The slave narrative is an important literary and cinematic genre with its own conventions, traditions, and innovations. One of the earliest narratives, Olaudah Equiano, is a rather extensive analysis of West African cultural independence and a testament to black independence in the face of British and American suspicion towards the full humanity of black persons. Equiano in many ways inaugurates a genre we often associate with Frederick Douglass, who produced his narrative toward freedom three times – first for abolition, then revised when his freedom was relatively secure, and finally revised a second time after the Civil War when he could freely condemn the atrocities of U.S. whites and reveal more intimate details without risking the well-being of those black persons who supported him. Omar ibn Said was among the earliest Muslims to draft a narrative of enslavement, relying on religious puns like “Master” and “Lord” to both profess his religion and ironically accuse the white man who legally owned him. Harriet Jacobs represents one of the most well-circulated narratives written by a woman, and her “Loophole of Retreat” was taken up by academic Miranda Green-Barteet as a discursive innovation in the genre whereby Jacobs advocated freedom for both black persons and women. In the late twentieth century the slave narrative witnessed a resurgence as “new slave narratives” were produced by the black community for both written and visual media, often echoing back toward foundational tropes while innovating them to express the contemporary social and political lives of blacks.

Benioff and Weiss’s Confederate also exist within a genre, but not within the New Slave Narratives of recent memory. Rather, like William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Confederate embodies the ongoing ethical problem of whites abusing race and history for the sake of their own fantasy. Confederate is already the latest innovation in the Make Slavery Cool Again genre, where white imaginations draft violent, but bound, characters because blackness is only ever acceptable when it is confined and mediated. These violent characters (who, by the way, are black in skin only) wage aggressive, and cathartic, violence against whites; but these whites don’t represent all white people, instead only representing the obviously bad white people through a contrast usually but not always anchored on the existence of a white savior protagonist(s): the abolitionist, the guy who purchased the black slave and then became his best friend, the secretly well-intentioned slavemaster’s son/daughter, and the European humanist passing through who could just never get on board with the uniquely American (and never, ever in Europe) institution of slavery. In the Make Slavery Cool Again genre, whites partake in a shared, psychic cleansing of our inner guilt. We root for the black guy who kills the white guy so we’re absolved from the horrors of something that happened decades ago (“which by the way my ancestors probably had nothing to do with”). Slavery is reduced to an exciting period of war and action heroes where Men were Men and Women were Women and black people finally figured out how to fight back by the good graces of benevolent white people.

But the problems of genre are not the only reason Confederate is rightly receiving backlash. We need also recognize that blacks particularly and people of color generally do not have the same diversity of experiences represented on television and in Hollywood that whites do. We’re super heroes with hundreds of different powers and in hundreds of different settings. We’re straight (mostly), gay (sometimes), lesbian (even less), trans (rarely but it happens), world-travelers, yuppies, poor, rural, urban, rich, broken, depressed, in love, isolated, and a whole range of other possibilities. The sheer spectrum of possibilities that exist for white characters does not exist for others. To quote Kara Brown, senior writer at Jezebel:

It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype. Their love of the slave movie genre brings this issue out in the worst way. I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story.

There is little diversity of the black experience in visual media. If we truly want to advance the national conversation on race, then we need to support the possibilities of greenlighting talent of color, both tried and untried; of publicly centering the creative talent of the marginalized which we white people often assume doesn’t even exist. Perhaps Confederate will be a creative and entertaining show. Maybe it will even surpass the limits of the Make Slavery Cool Again genre. But the show’s success is irrelevant in light of the fact that it’s funding and time slot will take the place of something that could potentially be more creative, innovative, and actually visualize the diversity of under-represented experiences and genuinely challenge social conventions.


*Featured Image: J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship (originally titled: Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On). 



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