Saturday, August 5, 2017

HBO's Confederate Show

As you may have heard the creators and show runners of HBO's smash hit series Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B Weiss, have decided to create and produce another show for HBO. Tentatively titled Confederate this show will imagine a modern day world in which the slave owning South won the Civil War as well as subsequent conflicts with the North. Slavery is still legal in the South but not the North. A black husband and wife couple, Malcolm and Nichelle Spellman, will also write for and produce the show. No scripts have yet been created. No storyline or theme has been divulged. And that is all anyone who is not named David Benioff, D.B Weiss, Malcolm or Nichelle Spellman, or who is not within the small group of HBO executives who greenlit the show or who is not married to or related to the show creators knows about Confederate at this time. 

Though the proposed show Confederate hasn't been viewed by a single mumbling soul many people immediately came out against the show. These reasons ranged from personal taste to fears that it would embolden the right-wing to concerns that whites would mess up the story to worries that it would by definition bolster lies about black inferiority to somewhat presumptuous fears that the American populace just didn't need to see this to accusations of cultural appropriation and imperialism. 

People even started a hashtag #NoConfederate to petition HBO to shut down the show before it begins. The New York Times published an inchoate and mostly incoherent argument by Gay in which she questioned the motives of the creators and attempted to tie Confederate to Trump voters and current day racism. 
My exhaustion with the idea of “Confederate” is multiplied by the realization that this show is the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous and treated as no big deal. I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands. And when I think about the number of people who gave this project the green light, the number of people who thought this was a great idea, my weariness grows exponentially.
This show’s premise highlights the limits of the imagination in a world where oppression thrives. These creators can imagine a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War and black people are still enslaved, but they can’t or aren’t interested in imagining a world where, say, things went in a completely different direction after the Civil War and, say, white people are enslaved. 
Nevertheless I am somewhat sympathetic to some of these concerns. Stories that leave impressions upon us often have realistic, occasionally even sympathetic, nuanced bad guys. What makes Tywin Lannister such a powerful character is precisely that he's not dangerous provided you don't insult him or set your will against his. Do that and you will get to see close up the cold ruthlessness that runs deep in Tywin. Black Book featured a Jewish woman falling in love or at least infatuation with a relatively decent SS officer. Think about that phrase for a minute. Relatively decent SS officer.

Will something similar happen in Confederate? Will we see a white slave owner who feels conflicted over slavery but just can't bring herself to go against her kith and kin? Will whites (heroes and villains) get the lion's share of the narrative while blacks are abused objects of pity or scorn? We will have to wait and see. Or not see as your taste indicates. Everyone appreciates different stories. I don't see any point in lecturing, hectoring or arguing with someone about their reading or viewing choices. It's unspeakably arrogant to tell someone what they should be watching or reading or creating. We each have our own individual set of preferences. All you can say is I like this or I do not like that. I've written before about how I disliked some choices that Benioff and Weiss made in their Game of Thrones adaptation and some decisions that GRRM made in his creation of A Song of Ice and Fire

So if Confederate is just not your thing, cool. Nothing wrong with that. But most of the people criticizing Confederate are also trying to get it pulled. They are trying to bully Benioff and Weiss into telling a different story. They are accusing Benioff and Weiss of creating art for that Trump voter who thinks that slavery was a good thing. No one has seen the show yet. No one. People are up in arms over something they haven't seen. That's ridiculous. Benioff and Weiss are not Patrick Buchanan or Dinesh D'Souza. They aren't boasting about relatives who fought for the Confederacy. They haven't stated that the wrong side won the war. They haven't publicly joked that blacks should thank America for enslaving their ancestors. They haven't said slavery wasn't that bad. To the contrary Benioff and Weiss have said that obviously slavery was horrible and America's Original Sin. Does that sound like slavery fans?
D.B. Weiss: Yeah, on top of what David said about history and how we’ve both been heavily invested in it since kids — 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. 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, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama.
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 Tramble Spellman: And immediately what the conversation turned into is how we could draw parallels between what has been described as America’s original sin to a present-day conversation. In this futuristic world, you could have this conversation in a straightforward manner without it being steeped in history: “What does this look like now.” 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.

Malcolm Spellman: This is not a world in which the entire country is enslaved. Slavery is in one half of the country. And the North is the North. As Nichelle was saying, the imagery should be no whips and no plantations.
You cannot litigate this on Twitter. It’s not possible. There’s a new emerging group of black filmmakers, right? And we have a good standing there with our peers. But there’s no connective tissue between us and what’s coming out in the media. I don’t know that we can change anyone’s mind … but what people have to understand is, and what we are obligated to repeat in every interview is: We’ve got black aunties. We’ve got black nephews, uncles. Black parents and black grandparents. We deal with them every single day. We deal with the struggle every single day. And people don’t have to get onboard with what we’re doing based on a press release. But when they’re writing about us, and commenting about us, they should be mindful of the fact that there are no sellouts involved in this show.
It looks like everyone is well aware that they are dealing with highly radioactive material, culturally speaking. But that is what dystopian fiction is all about. People have created stories in which women are reduced to brood mares or sex objects (The Handmaid's Tale, any Gor novel). People have created stories in which the Nazis won WW2 (The Man in the High Castle, Fatherland). People have created stories in which the Confederates won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee, Southern Victory). 

And people have created stories in which racist South Africans (perhaps the descriptor is unnecessary), conquer the world, in part by bio-engineering themselves into a master race (The Draka Domination). Dystopian stories are nothing new. And just because someone imagines something horrible doesn't mean that they want that terrible state of affairs to occur. If you don't understand that probably you shouldn't be allowed to watch anything more complex than old reruns of Sesame Street. So judging a show you haven't even seen yet is silly. And trying to prevent it from being made when you have exactly no evidence that it would be harmful is wrong. 

The real concern is that Benioff and Weiss are two white American men. Some people think that by definition whites are utterly unable to tell black stories and thus should be discouraged or even prevented from doing so. This, to use the proper critical term, is bulls***. Let's remember that Django Unchained and The Wire, each of which was both popular in and heavily criticized by the black community, were created by white men. Should white men not have created those stories? One of the better non-stereotypical black romantic comedies, the remake of About Last Night, was written and directed by a white woman and white man. Do you really want to live in a world where your ability to create or consume art is delineated by your race? Well some people do. We saw this recently in NYC where some black artists were upset that a white artist created a painting based on the Emmett Till murder.  
Another protester, Hannah Black, a British-born black artist and writer working in Berlin, has written a letter to the biennial’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, urging that the painting be not only removed from the show but also destroyed. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” Ms. Black wrote in a Facebook message that has been signed by more than 30 other artists she identifies as nonwhite. “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.” She added that “contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.”
Did that make any kind of sense? I didn't think so. We shouldn't tell anyone that they can't create art because of who they are. Now there is a valid, necessary and critical discussion to be had about who gets the opportunity to tell stories and who gets paid from so doing. But that's not really the argument which is being made here. Confederate could indeed be a pile of hot steaming crap served up with a tasty side of smug liberal cluelessness. I might even bet that it would be. But I don't know yet. Neither do you. The critics don't know. Even the creators don't know.

If you don't like a show fine, don't watch it. But trying to get it taken off the air so that nobody can watch it is something different. It's unlikely but in some extreme situations I might agree with that approach. But I would still need to see the show for myself and make up my own mind. Throwing full scale temper tantrums or reacting emotionally to incomplete information is no way to go through life. Find out what's happening before you make up your mind or take action. And rejecting art solely because of the artist's immutable characteristics is always wrong.

But that's just what I think. What's your take?

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