How the #NoConfederate Movement Has It Wrong on HBO’s Confederate
A few weeks ago (July 19, 2017) HBO announced that the creators of Game of Thrones would be creating a new series called Confederate. Backlash occurred in the form of a movement on Twitter using the hashtag #NoConfederate. I felt the need to jump in with my opinions, which resulted in my Twitter feed blowing up with responses. Twitter is a horrible platform for debate so, to remedy this, I figure a solid blog post on my opinion was in order.
I’m going to be frank: I’m not black. That basically means that, while I can be empathetic and attempt to gain an understanding of how black people feel about the announcement of this series, I will never fully understand it. Keep that in mind while reading my opinions.
But, first, let’s dive in by asking a few questions…
What exactly is Confederate about?
All we have really is HBO’s initial press release along with some brief dialog from the show creators:
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.
We don’t really know who any of the characters are, what some of the more detailed plot points might be, or anything else about the show other than this brief synopsis.
Hasn’t this concept been done before?
Yes, it has! There are a number of books about an alternate history based on the Civil War: Dixie Victorious, The Guns of the South, Shattered Nation, just to name a few (not to say that any of these books are good though). Along with that there was the fake British documentary series called C.S.A.: Confederate States of America. There’s also a new Amazon series called Black America in the works that’s similar to Confederate but with a different alternate history that asks “What if newly freed African-Americans were given the Southern states as reparations after the Civil War?”. Lots more where these came from.
What makes Confederate different then?
At the moment? Nothing. There are many alternate history and dystopian stories similar in nature. In fact, many people have made direct comparisons to The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Some have noted however that Confederate could very well end up just being the same escapist entertainment like The Handmaid’s Tale (or Game of Thrones for that matter!). Many on Twitter mentioned the parallels of our current prison populations, which are made up of a disproportionally large number of African-Americans (see the documentary 13th on Netflix for a good look at this issue!).
Bottom-line is that we really don’t know anything about Confederate other than the basic premise and who is creating it. For many folks though, that’s just the tip of the iceberg on the concerns people have expressed about this series.
So why the hubbub?
Just today, I read a really interesting article by Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Atlantic regarding the controversy surrounding Confederate. Entitled The Lost Cause Rides Again, Coates frames the discussion by talking about how Hollywood (and many politicians) don’t understand history and thus churn out multiple history-based movies and TV shows that leave out elements of truth. I think this is where the biggest part of the controversy lies. As Coates puts it:
…One need not wait to observe that any foray by HBO into the Civil War must be met with a spirit of pointed inquiry and a withholding of all benefit of the doubt.
Part of the problem it seems stems from who the writers are. Many folks on Twitter have expressed their lack of faith in the writers simply on account of how people of color have been portrayed on shows like Game of Thrones and Empire.
The response from HBO didn’t give Coates or people on Twitter much faith either:
We have great respect for the dialogue and concern being expressed around Confederate. We have faith that [writers] Nichelle, Dan, David and Malcolm will approach the subject with care and sensitivity. The project is currently in its infancy so we hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see.
To be honest, even I tend to lean on the “wait and see” side. More on this in a sec.
A problem of censorship
I think Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article is perhaps the best criticism I’ve read regarding this issue. I agree with damn near everything he’s saying. He offers some very well thought out criticism over this announcement which, in my opinion, outweighs much of the more visceral, reactionary comments I’ve read on Twitter.
However, there’s one side of this that Coates doesn’t talk about: censorship. He never says that HBO shouldn’t do the series. Instead, he simply says “We already know what to expect”. So, while so many people on Twitter are calling for HBO to cancel plans for the series, effectively banning it, I’m not sure Coates has that opinion. Hopefully he can clarify his opinion on that.
Those that know me know I’m an avid comic collector and reader. Looking back on the history of comics, there have been plenty of moments where comic books as a medium were ridiculed. The 1950’s saw many comic books being burned, especially ones produced by EC Comics, simply because some people found them to be offensive and lack any literary value. Since then, there have been multiple instances where people attempted to ban certain comic books, many from the late 80’s and 90’s. You can read more about this on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website.
Music has had its fair share of censorship as well. I remember back in the 80’s the PMRC Senate hearings where various artists, including Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder, testified and gave their thoughts on a ratings system for music similar to the MPAA. End results led to a simple “Parental Advisory” warning sticker on albums that had bad language and such on them. Was it censorship? Not quite, but artists of all kinds showed up and expressed their concerns because, if left unchecked, it could have lead to censorship.
Movies have had their fair share of criticism over the years with protests breaking out, calling for the banning of some movies. One movie I recall was The Last Temptation of Christ, a Martin Scorsese movie that I remember receiving an insane level of backlash. Many Christians showed up in droves to protest that movie. What was weird though was that so many of them protested the movie site unseen. They were protesting something they only understood through second-hand conversation from someone else. Even back then, as naive as I was, I thought, “How can someone criticize something they haven’t even seen for themselves?”.
Parallels with Last Temptation
I find there’s a parallel with the current Confederate criticism to the one surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ more than anything. Many Christians claimed the movie to be blasphemous and called for it to be banned, even though many of them hadn’t actually seen the movie. One part of the movie that particularly enraged many Christians was the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had sexual contact. The controversy got so intense that it even led to an attack on a Paris theatre. But the story you heard from film critics painted a completely different picture. Thought provoking? Absolutely…but offensive? Maybe for certain people, especially devout Christians.
While I can certainly understand the concern surrounding the announcement of this series, the call to censor, ban, boycott, cancel (or whatever you want to call it) this series just doesn’t make any sense to me. Unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, which was a finished movie, Confederate hasn’t even been made yet.
The point Coates makes is certain valid; we can certainly hypothesize on how this series might turn out based on who the creators are. But I honestly think we can still give them the benefit of the doubt precisely because the opinions voiced are based on just a synopsis and who the creators are and nothing else. Over the years, I’ve seen other artists surprise me by releasing work that was drastically different than prior work. Scorsese’s Last Temptation is a good example. It’s almost impossible to compare Last Temptation to Scorsese’s prior films. Had Scorsese announced the intent to make Last Temptation prior to actually making the film I wonder if the outrage would have erupted then.
Censorship is bad
The bottom-line is that censorship is bad in all its forms. Artists and creators over the years have creating things that offend people on all levels. That’s the nature of living in a free country. People are going to create things that you will find highly offensive. And, because of free speech, we certainly have the right to voice our opinions on what we find offensive. But to call for creators to simply not produce something is the wrong approach. In my opinion, doing so is a form of censorship. I believe all artists and creators have the right to produce what they want even if said material offends people. Freedom of expression, regardless of content, should be maintained.
I think the hashtag #NoConfederate does nothing more than create a controversy that gives HBO and the creators more reasons to create the series. Voicing such highly fueled feelings about it gives the creator’s all the more reason to talk about the subject through their series. At this point, it’s doubtful that HBO will cancel the series simply because a bunch of people say “Don’t do this!”. Yes, there’s certainly an element of greed on HBO’s part but, then again, HBO has never really been an organization that has shied away from controversy. It’s pretty much a given that the series is going to be created whether you like it or not.
Another recent controversy involves the shutting down of alt-right voices like Milo Yiannopoulos from college campuses. I get it. People get pissed. Folks like Milo Yiannopoulos are dirt bags but still, like it or not, this is a country that values free speech. Don’t like what he says? Fine. Protest it. But to rise to a level of violence that in turn forces the college to shut down the event, that’s just wrong. Same applies to the protests at Evergreen State College. That’s not freedom of expression; it’s censorship.
Here’s the thing…the show will still come out and, if it sucks, no one will care. However, if the show ends up being pretty good, there’s a potential opportunity there to open up some dialog about how we treat the history of the Confederacy. Given that there has been a lot of controversy this past year over Confederate monuments, waving of the Confederate flag, and such, it’s a given that the creators of this series felt the need to create a series that opens up more dialog about these issues. Again, you might not agree with it, you might find it highly offensive, but I honestly feel everyone is entitled to express themselves freely…even the creators of a high-profile HBO series.
As such, I propose that the #NoConfederate move to a new hashtag and new direction for their movement. Instead, maybe use a hashtag like #CarefulConfederate, or #WTFConfederate, maybe #WhoaConfederate. Instead of trying to convince HBO to cancel the series, open up dialog directly to the creators and voice your opinion. Let them know how you feel (not that you haven’t been doing that already!). Whether this leads to the creator’s writing something that is a more responsible approach to a sensitive topic, I don’t know.
I know this is a highly charged topic with lots of heavy feelings surrounding it. I get it. But I just don’t think trying to censor anyone is a good path to go down. Instead, express yourself and, when the series is released, watch it. If it ends up being as bad as Coates and others think it’s going to be then, by all means, protest, get out and express yourself some more. At the very least you can say that you didn’t try to censor anyone and allowed all sides to express themselves. That’s the country we live in and the one I want to continue living in. How about you?