For many Game of Thrones fans like myself, last Sunday's return to HBO for the seventh season's premiere episode was as thrilling as it was bittersweet. While the season's climax till lays ahead, the conclusion is in clear enough sight for post-Thrones rumors. While we previously wondered what direction the series creators would go in next, Wednesday gave us an answer that has left a lot of people confused.
HBO has officially announced that Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will be producing a new series for the network called Confederate. The program is described as a reimagined America in which the south successfully seceded from the Union, and kept slavery in place. In this alternate American universe, the Mason-Dixon line becomes a militarized zone full of freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, and journalists, prior to a third Civil War.
Reactions to this news came in swift and, largely, annoyed.
My own initial reaction to the news wasn't anger at all — just sheer bewilderment as to why two incredibly successful white showrunners felt that in this nation — with its sordid history and current inability to collectively grapple with even the most factual truths of slavery — that this is the story most important to tell. I can't understand why, throughout the vast options of different artistic directions, that they decided that revisiting black pain and further extending the concept of how a black body can be successfully dehumanized, was the best route to go. It's also very telling that the creators of a show that has been routinely criticized for it's lack of diversity are attempting to seriously construct a world inherently tied to blackness, when they've been unable to even introduce complex characters of color into the fantasy world of Game of Thrones.
There is an expansive pantheon of valuable shows/movies depicting African-American life, such as The Color Purple, Glory, and Roots, to name a few. These have proven to be important works of art that have pushed forward black history, propagated black culture, and presented American society with tough truths and even tougher questions - and based what we know about the show so far, Confederate doesn't have the feeling of any of that. It feels like a gratuitous and pointless exploitation of our current racial divide, and something that will likely lack nuance and thoughtfulness. In truth, my reaction to this news was simply that Confederate may be the most unnecessary series ever created.
Strangely, comparisons have already been made between Confederate and Amazon Prime's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle which delves into the idea of an alternate universe affected by a different outcome of an important and influential war. In that world, which takes place in 1962, America and the Allies lose World War II to Hitler and the Axis powers, which results in the the U.S. being divided into two parts, the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States. The show, which has already produced two seasons and has been greenlit for a third, has received positive reviews, pulling in a 95% critics' rating for its first season on Rotten Tomatoes.
To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.
In Germany, after Hitler lost World War II, the nation eventually acknowledged the role it played in the Holocaust, and even agreed to pay reparations to the victims of suffered Nazi crimes, even increasing that payment years ago. Germany has erected monuments to the victims of the Holocaust, and school lesson plans rightly teach that the Nazi regime was indefensibly evil. There was national remorse, reconciliation, and recompense for their cruelty.
Yet, when it comes to slavery in America, much of that qualitative recognition ceases to exist. While the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture has memorialized the bodies and souls of black folks trapped, tortured and killed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there has been no genuine reconciliation regarding the effects that slavery has had on its descendants, and black Americans as a whole. And there definitely hasn't been any financial repayment to the families whose descendants literally built the entire country on pillaged labor. In Germany, saying the Holocaust never happened is an extremist position (actually punishable by law there). In America, modern policing grew out of slave patrols is viewed by some as an extremist position, and tearing down a confederate flag can actually get you arrested.
The idea that the show will attempt to display "a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution" is almost laughable in a country in which mass incarceration exists as exactly that. In America, a nation with 5% of the world's population, and about 22% of the world's prisoners, many of whom are people of color, how exactly is the modernization and industrialization of slavery some kind of crazy, artistic risk? What we've learned from Ava DuVernay's brilliant documentary 13TH, which connected slavery to our current system of over-incarceration of black bodies, is that slavery was completely outlawed, it was just given a loophole where blacks are incarcerated at disproportionate levels, and there are now more black men in jail than there were black folks enslaved in 1850. If slavery is America's original sin, willful negligence is America's ongoing sin.
We don't need Confederate in a nation where the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, referred to enslaved people as "immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less, but they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land." We don't need Confederate in a nation where the United States Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, refers to Historically Black Colleges and Universities as pioneers of school choice when they were erected for a discriminated-against people who were legally and physically barred from attending any other institutions of higher learning. We don't need Confederate in a nation where Sally Hemings, the woman enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, is still being referred to as a mistress instead of a victim of rape. Let's get the historical education down pat first, and then we can start discovering new and inventive ways to dramatize the past.