The Controversy Behind “Confederate”

Recently, the showrunners behind “Game of Thrones” made an announcement. No, your favorite character isn’t going to die next week (although given the show’s history, your suspicions are merited).

The showrunners for “Thrones” are Dan Weiss and David Benioff, and their announcement concerned a new show that they are developing. Of course, it’s clear that they were already developing new shows for the future, but for the first time, the new show in question is *not* within the George R.R. Martin universe. It will, however, continue to focus on dragons. Grand dragons, at the very least.

That’s because the show is called “Confederate,” and it’s about an alternate universe where the south won the Civil War.

The reaction to this announcement can be best summed up in this gif:

This, coincidentally, reflects my reaction when I see a “Thrones” spoiler on Facebook.

The response to this announcement quickly coagulated into one of denouncement.

Given the track record of the producers, you may wonder why the new concept was almost universally condemned? Here are a few reasons.

The Noise

It should be pointed out that the alternative history genre has been popular for a while. One of Amazon Prime’s flagship shows is “The Man in the High Castle,” a show that speculates what the world would look like if the axis had won World War II. Philip Roth wrote a similarly themed bestseller in 2004, “The Plot Against America.” Neither project inspired the kind of backlash the “Thrones” producers are currently facing.

So what’s the difference?

Well frankly, “Game of Thrones” has the most vocal, excitable fanbase of any modern show. I don’t necessarily have statistics to back that assertion up. I *do* have my Facebook feed on Sunday nights with new “Thrones” episodes. You don’t even have to actually have your eyeballs on your television set; you could figure out everything going on in the new “Thrones” episode simply by following the relevant hashtags on Twitter.

That’s all to say that the news of this decision sparked such enormous backlash because *all* “Thrones” related news tends to inspire highly-saturated online discussion.

Diversity Issues

So “Thrones” is always the subject of online attention and chatter. Most of that chatter tends to be positive. But the show has also been the target of plenty of criticism.

There are those who critique the show, but they’re overwhelmingly outnumbered. Then there are those who critique the guest stars (ask Ed Sheeran about that).

Where the show probably gets criticized most often is on the issue of diversity. Not diversity from the books; diversity of the cast, specifically in regards to race.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Thrones,” it’s tough to argue that the show isn’t white. Really white. So white the show’s tagline is, “Winter is coming.”

All of the principal cast members throughout the show’s history have been white. There have been black actors, but they are often cast in smaller roles. Worse yet, they are often cast as slaves.

Given that the show takes place in a fantasy world, the show’s creators have the opportunity to create their own racial context, and in the eyes of many, they failed to do that in a representative way. Actors like David Oyelowo and John Boyega have both said they refuse to watch the show until there are more people of color cast in substantial roles.

So it stands to reason that the same people who criticize “Thrones” for the show’s lack of fair racial representation are skeptical about how the show’s creators will handle an issue as controversial as slavery.

Response from the Showrunners

Naturally, when a controversy of this nature occurs, it is expected that those in the middle of the storm offer their side of the story. That’s why Benioff and Weiss arranged an interview with Vulture in regards to the controversy.

The two creators weren’t by themselves – they brought along Malcolm and Tramble Spellman, the married couple who have separately worked on several hit shows like “Empire” and “The Good Wife.” Both of the Spellmans are black, and have already agreed to collaborate on “Confederate” as executive producers/writers.

In the interview, Benioff and Weiss made it clear that they understood the concerns of those levying the criticisms. They, along with the Spellmans, did their best to assuage any fears. For example, they pointed out that there’s not even a script yet. Weiss says in the interview, “I guess that’s what was a little surprising about some of the outrage. It’s just a little premature.”

The four writers are still mapping out what the alternate history of the show will even look like, although Malcolm Spellman hinted at the idea that the north/south division would likely remain the same, in that the north would not have slaves. He also suggested that the show, at least their current concept of it, is intended to act as a parable for modern times.

Weiss described their current vision as one of almost science fiction. “That sin [slavery] is still with us in many ways,” Weiss says. “‘Confederate,’ in all of our minds, will be an alternative history show. It’s a science fiction show. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could.”

Conclusion

It’s understandable why people flinched when they saw this news. The concept of slavery is not, um, pleasant. And if you are going to broach the subject, it’s fair to want the story primarily in the hands of black storytellers. As you can tell from last week’s post, I wholeheartedly support the idea of more diversity in television storytelling.

That said, I think it’s also fair to reserve judgment. Or:

But in this case, there’s not even a cover – just a concept.

Benioff, Weiss, and the Spellmans are all talented and creative storytellers. And though this may be an uncomfortable concept, I think television can reach its peak when it addresses challenging and controversial subject matter (see “The Handmaid’s Tale”).

I for one am intrigued by what “Confederate” can be.

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