The executive producers behind Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, recently announced their newest project, Confederate, but fans are not on board for their latest proposed adventure—particularly in light of the deadly clash this past weekend between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, VA. The upcoming HBO series Confederate imagines an alternative America where southern states have seceded from the Union and institutionalized modern slavery.
The creators claim their intentions are good: they’re arguing that the show will create a constructive racial dialogue that has been pent up for far too long in America. As Weiss stated in an interview with Vulture, “It’s an ugly and a painful history, but we all think this is a reason to talk about it, not a reason to run from it.”
However, many people fear it could have more damaging effects. After seeing the first trailer for the series, which aired during the season premiere of Game of Thrones in mid July, social media users were quick to question whether it is even possible for such a problematic idea to be handled properly, particularly since the show is being produced by two white men. Users also voiced significant concern about what airing this type of content could mean for race relations in the real world—and this was all weeks before Charlottesville.
How #NoConfederate started
Following the Confederate’s July 19 announcement, April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, joined with four other activists to mobilize the #NoConfederate campaign. The hashtag quickly became the number-one trending topic in the U.S. and the second highest worldwide while GoT aired across coasts.
— April (@ReignOfApril) July 28, 2017
Three weeks later, #NoConfederate is still gaining momentum. Singer/songwriter John Legend and producer Judd Apatow weighed in on opposite sides of the debate, while many others added their two cents.
You are correct. It is not censorship. I used the wrong word. But to criticize work before it exists is dangerous to all expression. https://t.co/DInL9OMcNt
— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) August 6, 2017
Judd, I genuinely respect you/your work/what you fight for, but this is explicitly *not* censorship, and to call it that is a mistake. /1 https://t.co/h4KSApIOAk
— Jordan Horowitz (@jehorowitz) August 5, 2017
HBO passes on show ideas everyday. Is that dangerous censorship? Maybe a large audience is just passing on this idea like HBO should have
— John Legend (@johnlegend) August 6, 2017
With the news from Charlottesville, Reign once again encouraged social media users to resist HBO’s plan to air Confederate. The activist tweeted over the weekend reminding people to use #NoConfederate while watching GoT, saying that the movement matters “now more than ever.”
— April (@ReignOfApril) August 12, 2017
Why #NoConfederate matters “now more than ever”
Critics of the show’s concept are concerned about the damage that can come from, as writer Pilot Viruet termed it, “slavery fan fiction.” Writer and activist Roxane Gay, who quoted Viruet in her New York Times piece on #NoConfederate, was one of a number of people this weekend who drew immediate comparisons of the proposed HBO series and the events unfolding in Charlottesville. The clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South was “one of the bloodiest fights to date,” as reported by the New York Times.
This Confederate pilot is exactly what I imagined it would be.
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 12, 2017
The rally, consisting primarily of white men gathered in a city park holding tiki torches, and some with Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia, quickly escalated with racial and anti-Semitic taunts and other white-supremacist rhetoric. The events culminated tragically, when a car with an Ohio license plate plowed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.
Like Gay, activist and Pod Save the People podcast host DeRay Mckesson wrote about the significance that symbols, like burning torches and swastikas, can carry on Twitter. For many, Charlottesville showed that all the upset and outrage over Confederate is warranted.
White supremacists were out in #Charlottesville to lament the removal of a confederate statue. They know that symbols matter.
— deray mckesson (@deray) August 12, 2017
Concerns from Canadians
Since its announcement, the show has also received backlash from many writers, academics and activists on this side of the border. Confederate is currently in production, but Anita Bromberg, the executive director at Canadian Race Relations Foundation, says she hopes it doesn’t make it to air.
“I reject this ‘wait and see notion’ HBO suggests,” says Bromberg. “The very concept is flawed for so many reasons—while the creators hold out lofty goals, they are essentially proposing to trade on Black degradation to entertain those that long for a racist past.”
Husband-and-wife team Devi Mucina and Mandeep Mucina, two University of Victoria professors and experts on Indigenous governance in Canada and Black history in America, say that Confederate isn’t just damaging to Americans, it could have serious repercussions for communities in Canada.
“Black history in Canada is something that has always been buried,” says Devi. “Our narratives have been under-appreciated and underrepresented, so I think from the Canadian context the damage could be more substantial and could have a bigger impact than in the U.S…. we have to ensure that history is not erased.”
Mandeep shared similar concerns—but also hope for a greater understanding of racial issues.
“Many white Americans may believe in these ideas and ideals, and so they are drawn to them. We need to uncover why they are drawn to them,” she says. “I’m hoping what can come out of a show like this is that we start to understand it better and maybe start to push back against it.”
Why it differs from other alt-history series
Those standing in defence of Confederate pointed to other television series based in alternate realities, particularly Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, which is currently going into its third season. In this dystopian series, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, the Axis powers won World War II, leading to the U.S. being split into a Nazi-controlled section, an area controlled by the Japanese and a buffer zone between the two.
Though at first glance, this alternate history seems to raise a lot of the same concerns as Confederate, these two concepts have some fundamental differences. A major one being that Germany has attempted to atone, in part by putting Nazis and Nazi sympathizers on trial and making reparations. As Mandeep points out, the U.S. has never done that with regards to slavery.
“With the Holocaust, people cannot contest it anymore. Whereas slavery and residential schools and colonialism is still constantly being contested as an alternate truth,” she says. “Even in the Canadian context, we are just starting that truth and reconciliation process with residential schools. I think perhaps that’s why [Confederate] is seen as more dangerous.”
A different approach to rewriting American Civil War history
In an attempt to fight alternate history with alternate history, another untitled Amazon series, currently being referred to as Black America, has gained support from critics of Confederate. The show, which has been in development for a year, follows a group of newly freed Black slaves who claim the states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi as reparations—and in doing so form a nation called New Colonia, a form of Black utopia.
“Sometimes we need to hear what the dominant voice is saying in order to counter it,” explains Mandeep. “To me, Black America is exciting because the people are saying, ‘OK, if that’s the game we’re going to play, we’re going to play it too, and this is how we’re going to spin it.’”
Many people on social media have embraced the alt-history concept proposed in Black America.
#BlackAmerica from Amazon prime sounds pretty awesome. An alt-reality show that is actually about trying to heal the wounds slavery caused.
— Britney Monae (@HiBritneyMonae) August 1, 2017
— B. (@BrionnaR22) August 1, 2017
As audiences prepared for the GoT on Sunday night—many planning to get #NoConfederate trending once again—crowds were also gathering in hundreds of cities in the U.S. and Canada to stand with Charlottesville. At the vigil in downtown Toronto, organizers reminded the crowd that Canada is not immune to the racism witnessed in Virginia—sentiments also emphasized by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. While social media users continued to tweet #NoConfederate, the sombre Toronto gathering raised their voices together to sing “Solidarity Forever.”