The Birth of a Commotion

News of a provocative forthcoming HBO drama series, and the public’s reaction, set the stage for a very uncivil war.

HBO is planning its post-Game of Thrones future; that show's chief creative talents are developing Confederate, a series that explores life in America if the South had won the Civil War. "Sounds like there WILL be White Walkers," one observer tweeted. Just not the kind from Thrones (on the left) (Images: HBO, iStock)

It wasn’t exactly the shot heard ‘round the world, and it didn’t need to be; it was the press release sent and resent around the Twitterverse.

On July 19, HBO announced some of its post-Game of Thrones future with its greenlight of an original drama series that will revisit the American past, and provocatively revise it, in a time of real-life racial and ethnic turmoil that rivals any in our history.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, showrunners, writers and developers of Game of Thrones (just starting its seventh season) will create and write Confederate, a series set to chronicle “the events leading to the Third American Civil War,” HBO announced.

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.”

In their own joint statement, Benioff and Weiss added: “We have discussed Confederate for years, originally as a concept for a feature film. But our experience on Thrones has convinced us that no one provides a bigger, better storytelling canvas than HBO. There won’t be dragons or White Walkers in this series, but we are creating a world...”

Production will start after the final season of Game of Thrones.

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Reaction on Twitter has been deep, passionate, and typical of the nation’s current racial divide:

Roxane Gay, New York Times best-selling author, cultural critic (@rgay): 

“It is exhausting to think of how many people at @HBO said yes to letting two white men envision modern day slavery. And offensive.”

@highsteppin: “Y’all love seeing us locked up even in the damn future, pathetic.”

JT Grondin (@jtygrondin): “Why is everyone so butt hurt about a TV show? @HBO strives to produce good content! #Confederate will be a hit! History can't be erased!”

Ethan Alexander (@EthanAlexIndie): “Hm, what if we had a show set in a fantasy world where people of color were the protagonists and in charge of their own agency?”

Dylan McKenna (@Ctrl_Alt_Dylan): “This seems like a shitty, shitty idea.”

Natalie Lawrence (@IamNLawrence): “I had no idea Jeff Sessions had a 2nd job at HBO.”

And Victoria Hodge (@VHodgeAuthor) had a pitch-perfect retort, pegged to some Thrones characters: “Actually it sounds like there WILL be White Walkers,” she tweeted — with a photograph of Ku Klux Klan members in full hooded regalia.

At Deadline, an entertainment trade publication, reader reaction to Confederate was mixed: Commenter Brenda writes: “This seems like a terrible idea. My question is why? Why would anyone want to explore southern racist wishful thinking? It’s a no for me.”

Writerguy responds: “That’s what genre storytelling is all about — using fiction to shine a light on truths we find hard to face in the real world. ... Done well, it’s a service to all of us. And there’s reason to believe these guys CAN do it well, subtext is their bread and butter.”

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Alternate-history entertainment is nothing new. Harry Turtledove, a prolific award-winning author of alternate-history novels, wrote a series of novels in which the South defeats the North in the Civil War. Amazon’s revisionist hit series The Man in the High Castle, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, explores life in an enemy-occupied United States after the Axis Powers emerge victorious in World War II. 

In the BBC series SS-GB, based on Len Deighton’s 1978 novel, a British police detective investigates a murder in an England invaded by the Nazis; he works under a Nazi superior in a country whose prime minister, Winston Churchill, has been executed, and whose government is in exile.

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad conjures a story of runaway slaves who escape the deep South via an underground railroad that is literally just that: an expansive subway system that ferries runaways north to freedom. The book’s now being developed by Amazon as a limited-edition series to be directed by Moonlight Oscar winner Barry Jenkins.

The 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America — perhaps the entertainment with the most direct conceptual link to the HBO project — offers a fully realized alternate history of the United States under Confederate control of the White House, Congress, and the national economy.

And to put the new series in proper perspective, you have to go back to the granddaddy of them all: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the venturesome but malignant 1915 motion picture that presented the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of the white race in an America populated with degenerate African Americans — not so much human beings as racist caricatures.

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People are weighing in with opinions on Confederate, but any controversy over what’s to be expected is very premature. TV series concepts change all the time; creating a series is a process, not an event. Many public reactions make the implicit assumption that the Confederate characters will be glowingly portrayed — hardly a slam-dunk, since two of the show's brain trust, executive producers Nichelle Tramble Spellman (Justified, The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire, Foxy Brown) are African American. 

And the initial Confederate premise will be forced to confront immovable aspects of reality that aren’t going anywhere. How, for example, will Benioff and Weiss address the upheavals of the 50's and 60's, periods in which the tremors of cultural civil war were taking place? 

How will they handle changes in the country in the wake of 9/11, and the proliferation of a new enemy in radical Islamist terrorism? How will they dramatize the emergence of Hispanics — long viewed by nativist Americans as a new “other” in this country?

Whatever ideas are brought to bear in Confederate, they won’t necessarily be as simple, or as literal, as black and white. Benioff and Weiss have an intriguing idea, if not an altogether original one. But ideas are fair game and, like the real world they’re a product of, subject to change. Often as not in the world of popular culture, history isn’t repeated, it’s rewritten.

Michael Eric Ross
Michael Eric Ross

Author and journalist Michael Eric Ross contributes to Medium. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, PopMatters, The New York Times, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Salon, The Root, msnbc.com, BuzzFeed, and other publications.

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The Birth of a Commotion