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Last week, HBO announced a new show called Confederate, from the showrunners of Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. This is how HBO described the show in their announcement:

CONFEDERATE chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

The response was…mixed, to say the very least. There are several different layers of problems with the concept and potential execution that made people angry. Rather than delve into any of them in particular, I just wanted to sketch out the different issues, and talk a bit about things that make some historians (not all) wary of the project.

First, there was concern about the two white men at the head of the project for a couple of reasons. Game of Thrones has featured some problematic racial imagery and a lot of sexual violence, and many have been disappointed with the response of the showrunners to complaints about both issues. This alone is enough to suggest to many that Confederate will be at the very least tone-deaf and more likely offensive and exploitative.

Others were wary because of the history of white filmmakers providing and white audiences expecting particular narratives about the Civil War that are dishonest, whitewashed, and factually incorrect. This led to some on-the-nose imaginings of what we’ll see in Confederate, since white Hollywood and white Middle America alike can’t abide or even conceptualize media without a dashing white hero and a love story.

Many also pointed out something along these lines already existed, produced by a black filmmaker: the mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. An independent film that is available to watch on Netflix, and which I highly recommend, C.S.A. never got the distribution and would never have gotten the funding or the splashy rollout that Confederate has already received. 

The history of awful Civil War movies and TV produced by white writers and filmmakers, the need for white male heroes and protagonists in all media, and the issues that Benioff and Weiss’ previous show has had with race and sexual violence were more than enough to create a huge backlash.

But there’s another set of problems operating in tandem with these issues, problems rooted in the way the showrunners seem to understand the past and just how “past” it is.

In an interview with Vulture in response to the backlash, the showrunners, were asked about how they came up with the idea for the show. [NB: The interview includes Malcolm and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, two black writers involved with the project who Benioff and Weiss describe as full partners. I’m only touching on their contributions a little in this analysis, not because I don’t think they’re important, but because I don’t actually think all four contributors are on the same page nearly as much as they say they are.]

Tell me more, though, about exactly how you came to do this idea. Did you do a whole bunch of research? Maybe go out one day and smoke peyote like Jim Morrison?

David Benioff: In a dorky way, I guess it goes back to — we’re both history nerds. I remember reading a history of the Civil War, I think it might have been the Shelby Foote one. And there’s a famous story, which I’m going to mash up, because my memory’s not what it used to be — but there’s a famous story of when Robert E. Lee was invading the North. Not the Gettysburg invasion, but an earlier one. And the set of orders got misplaced and were found by a Northern soldier. And it ended up ruining Lee’s invasion. A lot of people think if the orders hadn’t been lost, things might have been different: The Confederates might’ve sacked Washington, D.C., it’s possible the South could’ve won the war. So that notion of, what would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked D.C., if the South had won — that just always fascinated me. And history as a genre has always been interesting to me. That was really the initial thing. I wish I had a more specific trigger moment for you, but I don’t.

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.

The question suggests that the idea of the show is so far out only an altered mind could have come up with it. The answers, taken together, reveal people interested in playing with the past but not interested in really understanding it. They know they’re supposed to say slavery was the original sin, it’s still with us, blah blah blah, but that awareness doesn’t seem to have informed them or humbled them in any way.

It’s notable that their most specific “what ifs” are around how different military choices might have changed the direction of the war, not about the political, cultural, economic, or intellectual choices that led up to and followed the war. Perhaps the show examines those choices too, but that doesn’t seem to be the direction they’re going in. The “what if” that created the conditions for the show is sort of an afterthought, rather than a way to think about why things might have actually happened differently.

Perhaps they’ve read more than Shelby Foote, whose three-volume history of the Civil War was published between 1958 and 1974. But I don’t think so. If they did, they’d know that historians argue chattel slavery was a “modern” institution, one that arose with and helped create the very ideas and material conditions of “modernity” itself.

[Benioff and Weiss use “present day” in the Vulture interview, while the HBO announcement talks about slavery as a “modern institution.” Perhaps I should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they had no control over how the show was framed for the announcement.]

Several times they push back against the accusation that this show will be wish-fulfillment or straight up pornography for the alt-right and those who carry the banner for the Lost Cause. Repeatedly, all of the people involved push back against the idea that this will be pornography, stating that it won’t be “whips and plantations.”

This reasoning concerns me because of what I see and hear in the classroom every time I teach anything about slavery. Most of my students – and most of the people I talk with outside of the classroom – first point to the physical abuse as what was “bad” about slavery, rather than that people were legally owned and treated as property, their humanity ignored when it was problematic and exploited when it could be made to benefit those who owned them.

Abuse and control in American slavery took a wide variety of forms, and the idea that removing the whip means there’ll be less on screen to titillate racists falls flat. Moreover, slavery was never simply a plantation institution; portraying “urban” slavery isn’t science fiction, but believing it is shows that lack of understanding of the very “modern” history of slavery in the United States.

Taken together, these two things really matter, because over the years, many of my students have suggested that slavery could have been “reformed” to avoid the Civil War.

I usually have them outline what that would look like. Sometimes, they lay out the terms, realize they’ve just described free wage labor, and feel embarrassed. Other times they lay out something that looks like “humanitarian” views of slavery from the 19th century, in which case I ask them if they’d accept those terms for their own enslavement. Of course they refuse, but many try to avoid confronting why they thought such a system would have been a fair price for black Americans to pay in order for white Americans to avoid a civil war.

Getting rid of whips and plantations won’t prevent the show from being wish-fulfillment for some people, since a sleek, “modern,” white supremacist slave system, one that operates without the need for whips because all people know their place and stay in it, is the actual thing they wish for. 

I imagine these criticisms would be framed by the showrunners as harshing their buzz. They might say: “At the end of the day, it’s just a TV show, and it’s science fiction at that.” Setting aside the awful fact that we’re living in a moment when white nationalism has a place in the White House (a wrinkle to this story I can’t even tackle right now), whether the showrunners like it or not, people get their ideas about the past, slavery, and race from TV shows and movies. It’s why I always have students who ask, in all seriousness, why every slave didn’t just do what was in Django Unchained

None of this is to say that a project like this can’t be done well, or that this specific project won’t be done well. But something framed as an alternative history needs to know the both the history it claims to diverge from and why there’s been a 150-year struggle to control that history. Neither the initial announcement nor the Vulture interview on the “backlash” convinces me the project is there yet.

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