The ‘Con­fed­er­ate’ bat­tle­field

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - On­tro­ver­sial tele­vi­sion

Cshows and movies of­ten stir an out­cry from view­ers, but rarely do they draw a back­lash be­fore the script is penned and the first frame of film is shot. Yet a mere press re­lease from HBO two weeks ago an­nounc­ing a new se­ries by the team be­hind its block­buster “Game of Thrones” was enough to trig­ger a fierce blow­back that con­tin­ues to this day.

“Con­fed­er­ate” dares to imag­ine an al­ter­nate re­al­ity in which slav­ery re­mains le­gal in the South. In the se­ries, which is set in the present day, the South has se­ceded and be­come a sep­a­rate na­tion from the north­ern states, where slav­ery is out­lawed.

The show probably won’t ap­pear on a TV screen for two more years, but al­ready crit­ics are de­rid­ing it as “slav­ery fan fic­tion” by two white male writ­ers. April Reign, the cre­ator of the mem­o­rable #Os­carsSoWhite meme, launched a protest cam­paign on Twitter dur­ing last Sun­day’s episode of “Game of Thrones” with her new hash­tag, #NoCon­fed­er­ate. She is calling for peo­ple to tweet again dur­ing the next episode.

So, now we are pre-protest­ing things we ex­pect to of­fend us? That, in and of it­self, is of­fen­sive. This back­lash over some­thing that not one per­son has seen (be­cause there is noth­ing yet to see) is mis­placed, mis­guided and, ul­ti­mately, cor­ro­sive to the artis­tic free­dom and di­ver­sity that most of us — in­clud­ing, we would think, the “Con­fed­er­ate” crit­ics — want to flour­ish in Hol­ly­wood.

There’s no ques­tion that HBO and the “Con­fed­er­ate” cre­ators, David Be­nioff and D.B Weiss, are ven­tur­ing into dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory, mined with emo­tion. Slav­ery, as some pun­dits and po­ets have said, is this coun­try’s orig­i­nal sin — one from which the na­tion has never earned full ab­so­lu­tion. The on­screen ef­forts to cap­ture just the his­tor­i­cal truth of slav­ery have yielded mixed re­sults, from the caricatures of “Gone With the Wind” to the bru­tal re­al­ism of “12 Years a Slave.”

“Con­fed­er­ate” will re­write his­tory freely, cast­ing slav­ery as a mod­ern-day in­sti­tu­tion. Ac­cord­ing to HBO, the se­ries will follow char­ac­ters on both sides of “the Ma­son-Dixon Demil­i­ta­rized Zone,” in­clud­ing free­dom fighters, slave hun­ters, politi­cians and the ex­ec­u­tives of a slave-hold­ing con­glom­er­ate. (With luck, it will also follow the lives of the slaves.) Be­nioff and Weiss will be joined on staff by mar­ried TV writer-pro­duc­ers Mal­colm and Nichelle Tram­ble Spell­man, who are black. All four will be ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers.

That of­fers lit­tle com­fort to so­cial crit­ics skep­ti­cal that Be­nioff and Weiss, who were crit­i­cized for set­ting the “Game of Thrones” se­ries in an all-white world (ex­cept for the sea­sons that fea­tured black slaves), will deftly por­tray a mod­ern-day so­ci­ety that em­braces slav­ery. They also worry that “Con­fed­er­ate” is be­ing un­leashed at a volatile time, when white racists seem to be­lieve them­selves em­pow­ered by Pres­i­dent Trump’s elec­tion to say and do what­ever they want.

Wrong cre­ators, wrong time? Maybe. But it’s no more ac­cept­able for peo­ple to urge HBO to kill “Con­fed­er­ate” be­cause its cre­ators are white with no sub­stan­tial record of pen­ning black char­ac­ters than it would have been for peo­ple to urge Dis­ney’s Touch­stone Pic­tures, pre­emp­tively, not to back a movie Spike Lee planned to make about Ital­ian Amer­i­cans in the Bronx trau­ma­tized by the “Son of Sam” mur­ders.

The point is that we don’t know how the writ­ers will por­tray this world, and we don’t know what feel­ings the show will stir up. But frankly, the lit­mus test for a TV show should not be whether it will ap­peal to de­ranged white su­prem­a­cists.

Ac­cord­ing to the pro­duc­ers, this will not be some an­te­bel­lum pot-boiler. Nor does it sound like it will be “152 Years a Slave.” At its best, it could be a provoca­tive TV show that spurs con­ver­sa­tion about our his­tory, our cul­ture and our on­go­ing strug­gles with racism. Or it could be a ridicu­lous flop.

There might not even be all this out­cry if Hol­ly­wood didn’t have a long his­tory of keep­ing peo­ple of color out of the in­dus­try, both in front of and be­hind the cam­era. If dozens of shows star­ring non­white ac­tors were on screen telling a di­verse slate of sto­ries, a se­ries like “Con­fed­er­ate” might not have en­gen­dered the alarm that it has on pre-ar­rival.

But Hol­ly­wood’s sorry track record does not make this protest of “Con­fed­er­ate” any less trou­bling. It’s un­fair and smacks of cen­sor­ship to call for the can­cel­la­tion of a show that hasn’t even been filmed. Let’s see it be­fore we de­cide whether to de­nounce it.

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