The South Can Not Rise Again: Why HBO’s “Confederate” Is a Bad Idea
The creators of worldwide hit fantasy Game of Thrones are set to bring a different type of fantasy to HBO, an alternative history take on the American Civil War in Confederate. A fantasy in which the southern states successfully seceded from the Union and slavery was never outlawed; in fact it became a modern institution. That is not to be confused with the Prison Industrial Complex which is also a modern institution reliant on slave labour.
Here is HBO’s press release on the synopsis of the show:
The drama 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.
As it was announced people quickly compared Confederate to Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a show with a similar format which depicts life following World War Two if the Nazis had won, except it is not similar at all. Yes, both shows use an alternate history premise to depict a bleak fantasy world but Nazi Germany with global political power is truly alternative history. Moreover, Germany has made the effort to atone for its sins. There were reparations, trials, and people went to jail. However, most importantly Germany accepted the responsibility of the crimes that Nazi Germany committed. We now live in a world where Germany leads the western nations in compassionate legislation for refugees and asylum seekers. America, in 2017, still hasn’t fully accepted the brutality of its past. The subjugation of African-Americans is not the universally accepted history that it should be. You cannot reckon with your sins if you cannot accept that you committed them. It is illegal to be a Nazi in Germany, supporting the Confederacy propels you to the Presidency in America. Filmmaker and activist Bree Newsome notes, “people are pretty clear that the Nazis’ cause was wrong, but it’s not that clear-cut with the Confederacy, we normalize it: ‘There was a North and a South, and each had their causes.’ It equalizes them, like the cause of abolition is equally as valid as the cause of slavery.”
Under Trump’s America, the Confederacy is not so far removed from reality that it demands a depiction under the guise of an alternate timeline. Not only are monuments and statues of Confederate soldiers still depicted throughout some states in America but the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue caused protests by the Ku Klux Klan in Charlottesville, Va. The Confederate flags and iconography became a popular greeting at Trump rallies. Every former Confederate state bar Virginia voted for Trump, there is a direct link between the Confederacy, white supremacy and the current Administration.
Furthermore, the generational impact of slavery is largely ignored in present day America. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk after the Civil War yet he discusses practices that prevented African-Americans from: “1. The right to vote. 2. Civil equality. 3. The education of youth according to ability.” (Du Bois, 1994: 32). Jim Crow laws are even closer to present day, as close as 1965, and these were laws that specifically enacted anti-black policies. Moreover, Frederick Douglass was well aware of the negative impact of the visual representation of African-Americans as subservient slaves. He was instrumental in creating a ‘black public persona, [to] reinvent black masculinity, out-citizen white citizens, [and] counter racist iconography” (Trodd, 2015). Frederick Douglass was dubbed the most photographed American of the 19th century as a result of his effort in projecting a dignified persona and subverting racist visual stereotypes of black people. Confederate will regress in that respect. The synopsis lists “slave-hunters” and “executives of a slave-holding conglomerate”. They can either be projected as sympathetic white folk or vicious racists and both are problematic. It is easy to dismiss slave-owners as caricature-level evil villains yet they were human and caricatures take away from the horror of slavery whilst sympathetic depictions invite viewers to sympathise with slave-owners.
We do not need sympathetic slave-hunters. It is grossly immoral and creatively bankrupt to assume this under the guise of creative freedom. The arts require a certain level of responsibility on behalf of the creator, they are fundamental in shaping so many people’s perspectives and I do not believe Benioff and Weiss have demonstrated that responsibility in their past work. Again, Bree Newsome sums up the impact of this when she says, “there has been so much deliberate miseducation around the Civil War, and this basically rewrites black history of the past 150 years, we combat racism through educating people on history, so it’s dangerous to present alternative histories when people are still not clear on the facts.”
I love Game of Thrones, it is easily my favourite fantasy series of all time yet it does not know how to handle race. Similarly, I love Lord of the Rings which didn’t have to handle race because it erased people of colour altogether. The fundamental difference here with Confederate is that race is pivotal to the narrative; the Third Civil War is between those who were pro-slavery and those who were anti-slavery. In order to depict characters from the Confederacy this show will inevitably require the normalization of symbols and values of hatred that will be embraced by subsections of America rather than reviled.
Will there be marketing? Will we be getting Funko figures of Confederate characters and slave-hunters? Just how much does HBO want to profit off of this show? It makes me uncomfortable just thinking about it.
Thanks to April, this Sunday at 9pm ET during Game of Thrones, we will be tweeting with the hashtag #NoConfederate to send a message to HBO, please join us.