When HBO announced that the new show from their golden-boy Game of Thrones showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, would involve an alternate history in which the Confederacy won and slavery continued, it didn’t go over well. Now, HBO executives say they see why.
The original announcement glossed over the involvement of producers and couple Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who are black and who also have a long track record of making successful television shows, such as The Good Wife and Empire. The four creators were interviewed by Vulture soon after the shit hit the fan in an attempt to clear up the notion that Confederate would essentially be alt-right fan-fiction.
The Spellmans, Benioff and Weiss mostly urged people to withhold their judgement until premiere night, which doesn’t really speak to everyone’s exhaustion with the common “what if the South had won” premise. But Malcolm Spellman did suggest that the show will be exploring the ways in which slavery hasn’t yet ended in our current era, which is more interesting:
MS: I think that [using the word] “winning” creates the wrong image. [In the world of Confederate], it was a standstill. They maintain their position, the North maintains theirs. What people need to recognize is, and it makes me really want to get into the show: The shit is alive and real today. I think people have got to stop pretending that slavery was something that happened and went away. The shit is affecting people in the present day. And it’s easy for folks to hide from it, because sometimes you’re not able to map it out, especially with how insidious racism has become. But everyone knows that with Trump coming into power, a bunch of shit that had always been there got resurfaced. So the idea that this would be pornography goes back to people imagining whips and plantations. What they need to be imagining is how fucked up things are today, and a story that allows us to now dramatize it in a more tangible matter.
At the Television Critics Association’s press tour on Wednesday, HBO programming president Casey Bloys repeated a similar talking point while discussing the controversy already swirling around the as-yet unwritten show. From The Hollywood Reporter:
“Everyone understands there is a high degree of getting this right. … If you can get it right, there is real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America,” he said. “If you can draw a line between what we’re seeing in the country today with voter suppression, mass incarceration, lack of access to public education and healthcare and draw the line to our past and shared history, that’s an important line to draw and a conversation worth having. [The producers] acknowledge this has a high degree of difficulty. It’s a risk worth taking.”
Bloys seems to think their biggest mistake was how they revealed the show’s subject matter, and that he should have had the Spellmans in the forefront from the beginning:
“File this under hindsight is 20-20. … The idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive, and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers, in a press release was misguided on our part,”
“We assumed it’d be controversial. I think we could have done a better job with the press rollout. … What we realized in retrospect is people don’t have the benefit of having the context of the conversations with the producers that we had.”
He added that people imagining an ante bellum period drama have got it all wrong, saying, “Producers have said they’re not looking to do Gone With the Wind 2017; it’s not whips and plantations. It’s what they imagine the modern institution of slavery would look like.”
It’s worth noting, though, that the Spellmans have a different job title and level of power on Confederate from the GoT guys, as of now. Vulture says that Benioff and Weiss are the “official showrunners and creators” of the series, and the Spellmans are “writers/executive producers.” An alternate fantasy HBO might look into is letting black showrunners create their next big show.