A Few Thoughts on the Confederate Controversy

HBO recently announced that they would be producing Confederate, a drama series depicting what American life could look like had the south successfully seceded during the Civil War and kept slavery alive as a result. Naturally, this has caused controversy.

Let’s take a look at the two sides of the argument:

Team A: Critics have deemed that the concept of Confederate is one not worth exploring due to the fact that much of the sentiment that the south held so dear still pervades to this day. They argue that while the south may have lost, it’s not as if the end of the Civil War meant immediate and complete improvement of life for slaves and their descendants. Many of these critics have referred to the show as “slavery fan fiction,” and most have taken issue with the fact that two of the four writers/producers, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, are both white, and thus not capable of delivering a show that could serve racial progress in a respectful or worthwhile way. Furthermore, the more extreme members of this faction are attempting to get the show’s green light revoked via petition.

Team B: Defenders of the show see the early criticism as a jumping of the gun. The show will be written by Benioff, Weiss, and two writers of color, Nichelle Tramble Spellman, and Malcolm Spellman, which leads these folks to argue that Confederate may be more nuanced and respectful than its critics are willing to believe. This faction has taken to labeling pushback against the show as a form of censorship, and has been vocal about the idea that if Confederate were to be cancelled before even a single page of script was written it would not bode well for artistic expression on the whole.

And here’s the part where I say that both sides are right and wrong.

First and foremost, Team A has every right to speak out against a concept that they find to be tasteless. Art exists to make you feel, and when art comes from a business, there will inarguably be questions of taste. Freedom of expression goes both ways, and if there is something out there you don’t like, you are allowed speak up — to express. This is not censorship. Sorry, Team B. However, attempting to get a non-existent show cancelled based on quite literally one piece of information (namely the broadest one-line description of the show’s concept) is an extremely closed-minded position. While it may not be censorship in the strictest sense, it does indeed validate Team B’s concerns about future potentially controversial work. If the network caves to this particular petition today, even the most baseless petitions regarding future content will have to be reckoned with tomorrow. Slippery slopes and such.

Team A is correct in speaking up. Team A is incorrect in thinking they know the entire content of the show based on just the concept and the identity of one half of the show-runners. Their argument will be much stronger if they wait until release and then proceed to point out in-show details of insensitivity or dangerous propaganda, at which point the market could be manipulated through boycott to have the show cancelled. HBO has certainly cancelled plenty of series for less pressing reasons in the past. In addition, by pre-judging the show, these folks are ignorant to the possibility that the show could actually be good; could potentially be a valid conversation starter. It might even be the type of show that helps those who are resistant to nuanced thought in the matters of race to see things in a new light.

Team B is correct in being fearful of the initial backlash and what it means for the future of the already tenuous relationship between artistic expression and the business behind it. Team B is incorrect in thinking that even a simple announcement is above criticism. If the true function of Confederate is to make a valid entry into the conversation of race, it must back up the notion by actually participating in the conversation that has been started by the announcement. We don’t live in a world where the artist gets to create in a bubble unless said artist waits until after the work is done to release it. HBO has made the announcement, functionally kicking off the release, and therefore the bubble has already been popped (and would have only been permitted to exist until after the show aired any way).

At this time, so little is known about the show that it’s hard to say whether the premise is an exploitative novelty or an interesting window through which to explore a pertinent issue. Given the racial makeup of the four creatives behind the show, one could argue that it’s the perfect panel to wield something well thought out and forward-minded…

…or maybe it’s corporate-level tokenism employed to hide what we all know to be true but are afraid to say: exploiting racial discourse for entertainment is damn good business. Always has been.

Where do I stand? Well, I will reserve full judgment until I see the show … but I’m already disinterested. Not because I take issue with the content or its creators, but because the show’s description doesn’t really grab me or speak to my taste. I think it will probably be a decent show, and it will probably cause a stir no matter what thematic angle it takes.

That’s what I think, at least. But here’s what I know: we ALL just got played by the marketing machine. HBO knows EXACTLY what they are doing, and when Confederate inevitably premieres, it will be a ratings smash, largely because of this controversy. Why else would they announce the show when it’s barely off the ground? In fact, this article should get me at least a month of HBO for free because I’m giving them valuable advertisement.

Welp, gotta go. Game of Thrones is on!

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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