HBO’s Confederate: Yes, We Should Let White People Make Art About Racism in America

Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
David Benioff, left, and D.B. Weiss accept the outstanding writing for a drama series award for "Game of Thrones" at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on September 20, 2015. They say the new season will be the best yet. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Detroit and Newark were still smoldering from a summer of unrest when William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner in October 1967. The novel was a first-person retelling of the 1831 slave rebellion, written in the voice of Turner as he awaits execution. Turner was black. Styron was very much not. That didn’t seem to matter, at least not to the literary establishment. Eliot Fremont-Smith of The New York Times praised the novel as “rich, powerful and cathartic,” offering truths others shied away from.

“White America, North and South, has been crippled by its inability to see the Negro,” Fremont-Smith wrote, “or to understand our joint, inseparable history, or even that it is joint and inseparable.” The Pulitzer Prize committee evidently agreed, awarding Confessions its fiction prize in 1968.

Backlash was slower to build in those pre-Twitter days, but by the summer of 1968, the anger over Confessions arrived in the form of William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, a collection of essays harshly critical of the novel. “Styron has done nothing less (and nothing more) than create another chapter in our long and common agony,” wrote the historian Vincent Harding. “He has done it because we have allowed it, and we who are black must be men enough to admit that bitter fact. There can be no common history until we have first fleshed out the lineaments of our own, for no one else can speak out of the bittersweet bowels of our blackness.”

Fifty years later, almost identical charges are being levelled against David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of HBO’s Game of Thrones — not for that bloody medieval fantasia, but for an upcoming project called Confederate, which HBO announced last month as a reimagination of American history in which the South, after secession from the Union, became a nation “in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” HBO says the series will feature “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.”

We know nothing else about Confederate, but some are already condemning the series as an exercise in what Styron’s detractors called “moral senility.” The protest against Confederate has its most vociferous champion in April Reign, of #OscarsSoWhite fame; her new hashtag, #NoConfederate, has lately been trending on Sunday nights, during Game of Thrones, a series notable for its lack of black characters. Reign’s movement has been lent credence by Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who penned an essay for that publication’s website titled “Don’t Give HBO’s ‘Confederate’ the Benefit of the Doubt.”

In a summer full of outrages, this one has impressive traction. Will the series engender the national conversation on race we’ve been putting off for decades? Probably not. Could it be the “slavery fanfic” one critic feared on Twitter? That’s a possibility, but not a likely one, since two of the four creators of the series will be the talented black writers Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman. I am also hopeful because HBO has given a platform for black actors (The Wire) and black writers (Insecure) to do the kind of serious work that still remains rare on television. HBO may not solve our racial divisions, but it also is no longer the network that had Tony Soprano rolling down the New Jersey Turnpike in 1999.

Watching the fury build online, I endeavored not to dismiss it, as one must with most online outrages if one wants to remain sane. There was genuine dismay at the notion of white executives in Midtown Manhattan deciding to endorse a modern-day vision of the slaveholding South. Is that because, as some have suggested, these powerful white men and women are secretly thrilled by the notion of literally wielding mastery over black bodies? I doubt that strongly. I suspect, instead, that they want to make Confederate because slavery is both grotesque and inexplicable. Its aftereffects continue to bedevil our society. To revisit slavery, then, is not to engage in racial eroticism but to look clearly at a wound that has not healed.

The unspeakable violence that took place at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, resulted from the inordinate outrage of fulminating racists over the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. To white supremacists, the Confederacy remains a glorious past to be recovered. My hope is that Confederate offers a powerfully damning counter-narrative, one that shows that in a slave society, nobody is free.

You can be confident the right has watched the #NoConfederate movement with glee. Here is the left that Donald Trump mocked on the campaign trail, inordinately obsessed with cultural slights while ignoring the very real work to be done in the world beyond hashtags. #NoConfederate hinders that work, offering the true enemies of racial progress the ammunition they need. Liberals, in turn, become characters in the story told by Breitbart and Fox News, about a left so wracked with battles over identity politics that it has forgotten about Americans black and white alike. Getting more people of color into Hollywood is an absolutely worthy goal, but Confederate doesn’t hinder it.

One of the main objections to Confederate is that it will be yet another pimping of African-American history. “The commodification of black pain for the enjoyment of others must stop,” Reign told CNN in late July. “The prison industrial complex is bursting with black and brown people, disproportionate to the crimes committed. So, for some, Confederate is not 'alternate history,' but a painful and recent reminder of how much further we still need to go for true equality in this country.”

Reign’s point about mass incarceration and pervasive racism in criminal justice is unassailable. But doesn’t the nation need reminders of how illusory our progress on race matters has been? Of how much work remains? If anything, we should demand more, not fewer, such reminders in our culture. And, it goes without saying, those reminders shouldn’t be confined to slavery and its present-day vestiges. There is, for example, Sterling K. Brown’s portrayal of a successful futures trader in This is Us, which captures what the Los Angeles Times critic Marc Bernardin has called “the bad luck and glorious burden of being born black and brilliant in white America.”

A good deal of art involves the commodification of pain. That’s true for medieval images of Jesus on the cross, war movies like Glory and virtually any novel that isn’t purely comedic. Art often translates pain, either individual or collective, into something compelling and beautiful. And enjoyable. As for black pain, it informs the entire tradition of jazz and the blues. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man commodifies black pain, as does Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The records of Jay Z and Dr. Dre commodify that pain, largely for white consumers. We should be less concerned with commodification than with whether its subjects are treated with honesty and dignity. That is the difference between art and exploitation.  

Confederate is more objectionable because its creators are white (the participation of the Spellmans is generally downplayed by detractors). Benioff and Weiss do not have ownership over the black experience, the argument goes, and therefore cannot be trusted with a subject as sensitive as slavery. Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you,” Coates writes in The Atlantic, “when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear.”

Coates seem to be saying that only “direct fear” allows one to grapple with the legacy of racism or discrimination. Certainly, one could conclude that from reading Between the World and Me, his pessimistic 2015 bestseller. But a much more nuanced and compelling view of race can be found in the The Sellout, a novel published that same year by Paul Beatty. The Sellout is a “thought experiment” about an invented patch of black Los Angeles where slavery and segregation have made an unlikely return thanks to Beatty’s industrious narrator. The novel is preposterous, hilarious and turgid with truth. Confederate will succeed if it can marshall the same forces, but it will fail if it is just an extended version of Kendall Jenner’s Black Lives Matter-inspired Pepsi ad.

It is true, of course, that white Americans simply do not live with the everyday threat of official (or tacitly tolerated) violence that confronts black Americans. Coates, however, denies whites any possibility of kinship across racial lines. As a white American male, I have not suffered from the abrogation of the Voting Rights Act. I have not had my churches assailed, nor crosses burned on my lawn. Yet my faith in America ebbed after Dylann Roof killed nine black parishioners at a Charleston church. I find Trump’s descriptions of what he calls “the inner city” — “You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs.” — revoltingly simplistic, not to mention potentially destructive.

I am unable to share fully in the suffering of black Americans, but that has less to do with race than the limits of human empathy and imagination. We should try to overcome those limits instead of fortifying them. Nobody expressed this idea more gracefully than Ellison, with the rhetorical question that closes Invisible Man: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Of course, he spoke for us all. Great art invariably does.

All art carries risk. “I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands,” wrote Roxane Gay in The New York Times of Benioff and Wise. She notes, as others have, that Game of Thrones is rife with sexual violence, which would be a troubling precedent for Confederate. It is certainly possible Weiss and Benioff will send out actors in blackface, sexualize black women and demonize black men. If that turns out to be the case, Weiss and Benioff, today’s Hollywood darlings, will become tomorrow’s Hollywood cautionary tales about cultural appropriation.

Just witness the reaction to Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which has been called “artsy torture porn” and “a moral failure.” Bigelow doesn’t lack sensitivity. What’s missing from Detroit is the kind of depth that would tell us something new about race in America. Did she fail at her depiction of the 1967 racial unrest in that city because she was white? No, but she didn’t get a pass because she was white, either. Nor will Weiss and Benioff.

Gay also pointed to Trump’s election, and the many troubling incidents of racial violence that have followed, as evidence that Confederate would be a kind of piling on: “I cannot help worrying that there are people, emboldened by this administration, who will watch a show like Confederate and see it as inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale.” That’s a risk we take with any work of art, that it will be perverted and misunderstood. It is possible that some people read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America as an endorsement of anti-Semitism. And there were some who thought Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was a celebration of pedophilia.

In the fall of 1968, the novelist James Baldwin held an event in Beverly Hills with William Styron and Ossie Davis, the actor and activist. Baldwin was a friend of Styron, and he’d supported the writing of The Confessions of Nat Turner, which he called a “confrontation with his history” — that is, Styron’s. The responsibility for what Turner did, and what was done to Turner, belonged to whites at least as much as it did to blacks. But the questioning of belonging didn’t bother Baldwin much. “Any event,” he said, “and any person occurring in time is the property of any novelist.”

So it should be with Confederate, regardless of whether it ultimately proves an embarrassment or a masterpiece.