Robert J. Thompson: “A lot of people have made the case that, context be damned, the idea of showing that slavery exists in a modern industrial society — it’s the very presentation of that speculation that causes problems.” Image from CSA: The Confederate States of America (The Weinstein Company/IFC Films)

Alt-American History (X)

Two forthcoming drama series pivoting off the Civil War show how the debate over slavery, spark of that conflict, rages in the culture, and the national psyche, 150+ years after war’s end

The process to end slavery in the United States formally began with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. The actual impact of slavery hasn’t observed such convenient finality; the debate over the “peculiar institution” — how and how much it affects our 21st century lives — rages today, and popular culture has hardly escaped. The announcements of two ambitious television projects with American slavery at or near their core have jump-started the national outrage machine (ably masquerading these days as the Internet).

On July 19, HBO released a press release announcing that the cable entertainment giant, planning its post-Game of Thrones future, would produce Confederate, an alternate-history dramatic series positing what life would be like in the United States had the Confederacy run the Civil War.

From the press release: “It 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 series will be created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the two co-creators of the Game of Thrones series whose characters are the work of George R.R. Martin.

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The reaction to the Confederate announcement was immediate, with allies, observers and detractors jumping in heavily on social media and some op-ed pieces. In The New York Times, essayist and critic Roxane Gay was among them:

“Creativity without constraint comes with responsibility. We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide. I cannot help worrying that there are people, emboldened by this administration, who will watch a show like ‘Confederate’ and see it as inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale.”

Then on August 1, Amazon countered with news of its own alt-history Civil War series Black America, to be produced by Will Packer and written by The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder. In this project, hazily announced by Amazon in February, black Americans after the Civil War receive reparations in the form of three contiguous states in the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) and the opportunity to create their own independent nation, New Colonia.

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According to an Amazon release, “New Colonia has had a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with its looming ‘Big Neighbor,’ both ally and foe, the United States. The past 150 years have been witness to military incursions, assassinations, regime change, coups, etc. Today, after two decades of peace with the U.S. and unprecedented growth, an ascendant New Colonia joins the ranks of major industrialized nations on the world stage as America slides into rapid decline. Inexorably tied together, the fate of two nations, indivisible, hangs in the balance.” Deadline announced the project in February.

Poster for CSA: The Confederate States of America (IFC Films)

When they show up on the small screen, they’ll join other shows and movies that have cashed in on the preoccupation with alternate-history entertainment. BBC produced SS-GB, a series based on a Len Deighton novel that proposes a timeline in which England is invaded, Winston Churchill is executed, and the British government rules from exile. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, a 2004 mockumentary directed by Chi-Raq writer Kevin Willmott, advances a USA with openly racist advertising and online slave auctions.

For Robert J. Thompson, a student of the Gordian knot of television’s impact on society and society’s impact on television, this fascination with alt-black American history is more than just TV chasing the shiny object of the moment.

“If we’re talking about African American identity as a broad thing, we’ve been seeing a lot more of that in the last decade partially because there are so many more places for it,” said Thompson, Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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Larry Willmore (Comedy Central)

“Not that many years ago, we had the rise of the Shonda Rhimes universe and Empire. Now there’s Issa Rae with Insecure, and on Comedy Central, Trevor Noah’s on The Late Show, not long after Larry Willmore [host of The Nightly]. Definitely there’s a lot more programming that deals with African American identity on a broad level. We’ve seen a lot of that.”

Can Benioff and Weiss pull this off or have they bitten off more than they can comfortably chew? “We can’t judge Confederate yet, there’s nothing to judge but the tagline,” Thompson said. “The problem was they announced in just a couple sentences this very provocative idea. It was inevitable that people would respond that way. Black America sounds like a really fascinating idea, It could executed any number of ways. It’s so hard to judge these things exclusively on a short description.”

The X factor in the creative process for Confederate may well be Nichelle and Malcolm Spellman, the two executive producers and writers who’ll play a major role in bringing the series to life. Both are series TV veterans, with credits including Justified, The Good Wife and the Fox hit Empire. And both are African American — a fact that undercuts Confederate detractors’ calculus that the series will be a parade of hourlong white-supremacist wet dreams.

“The GoT guys putting their names on anything is a golden touch,” Thompson said, “but I get the sense that probably they’re going to have more to do with running the show than the Game of Thrones guys, given the kind of controversy it’s gotten.”

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The Spellmans aren’t just along for the ride, as they made clear in an interview with Vulture. “For me and Nichelle, it’s deeply personal because we are the offspring of this history,” Malcolm Spellman said. “We deal with it directly and have for our entire lives. We deal with it in Hollywood, we deal with it in the real world when we’re dealing with friends and family members. And I think Nichelle and I both felt a sense of urgency in trying to find a way to support a discussion that is percolating but isn’t happening enough. …

“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.”

There’s been speculation that the big reveal for Confederate was intended to announce Casey Bloys as HBO’s new president of programming — that this show would be his first big Series Statement at HBO. Whether true or not, Bloys is confident of the project. He defended the series in a recent interview with reporters. “If you can get it right, there is real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America,” he said, as quoted in The Guardian UK.

“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 … 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.”

For Thompson, the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency likely has a likely role in the genesis of both the planned productions. “If we say the age of Trump started in June 2015, with his ride down the escalator, certainly two years is plenty of time for people to come up with ideas and put them out there as a result of Trump. I think that’s part of the recipe.

“However, there are other things in there,” he said. The idea of [cultural examination of] race in America was going on way before Trump. That rash of police shootings, one after another, that period that Larry Willmore dealt with, that’s before we were talking about Trump.

“With the fact that the Civil War remains one of the central defining chapters in modern American history, when you’ve got other places to put shows besides the regular networks, it makes sense that we’re looking at the Civil War not just like Ken Burns, but through many different, speculative alternatives.”
Poster for Djanbo Unchained

Thompson thinks the fast and furious blowback over Confederate’s planned storyline is a backlash against what he and others have called “slave porn,” a kind of bondage chic in the culture distilled in rapid succession by a series of productions — from Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave to Django Unchained to WGN’s just-cancelled Underground — in which the “peculiar institution” has gone under Hollywood’s microscope. “We’ve had an awful lot of opportunity to watch black people being treated horribly,” he said. “Regardless of the context, that was a problem for a lot of people.”

“One of the problems Confederate had was that the announcement was such a short description, people on the Internet speculated that this would be a celebratory thing,” Thompson noted. For many angry netizens, he observed, “the argument’s that the way the show is described sounds like the institution of slavery is functioning in a modern society. A lot of people have made the case that, context be damned, the idea of showing that slavery exists in a modern industrial society — it’s the very presentation of that speculation that causes problems.”