As Game of Thrones fans nestled in to watch the HBO megahit on Sunday evening, many also kept an eye on Twitter. But the tweetstorm that erupted that night had little to do with their show.
Instead, the protest hashtag #NoConfederate — which quickly trended to No. 1 in the US and No. 2 worldwide — was sparked by a separate project by the GoT creators: Confederate.
Confederate, the sci-fi, alt-history drama of what the United States would look like if the North had lost the Civil War, had been announced by HBO in late July. The brainchild of Game of Thrones writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the series is a four-part collaboration between Weiss and Benioff, who are white, and Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, a married writer and producer couple, who are black. The Spellmans are behind hit television shows The Good Wife and Empire.
The show, in early stages of development, has received major backlash. April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, mobilized the Twittersphere on Sunday night with #NoConfederate, a joint effort between Reign and activists Rebecca Theodore, Jamie Broadnax, Shanelle Little, and Lauren Warren. And they were not alone in their concerns — earlier, critic Roxane Gay had condemned the series in the New York Times, calling it "slavery fan fiction."
The message? Do not run this show.
Reign posits that the subject alone is reason enough to cancel the show, pointing out that the effects of slavery are still felt today. Responding to someone suggesting that the show might illustrate what living with racism is like, Reign tweeted: "You mean white people. People of color are well aware of this. We don't need a TV show. We have, you know, our daily existence and stuff."
I spoke to Reign about her concerns about the subject matter of the show and its producers, the effects she thinks the show would have, and whether she will watch an episode of the series if it comes to fruition.
Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
What were your initial feelings when you first learned about Confederate?
I learned about Confederate the way I learn about just about everything: through Twitter.
One red flag was the premise of the show itself. This is supposed to be alternate history, yet we see in the news almost every day the way that the Confederate mindset is still very alive and well in present-day 2017. You've got somebody like Dylann Roof, who is a Confederate flag waver, a white nationalist, very calmly going into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killing nine black people. You've got textbooks in the state of Texas literally rewriting history so that black people and Africans and African Americans were not "enslaved," they were merely workers.
We have a state officeholder in South Carolina talking about how proud she is of the Confederacy. We have people last month protesting that Confederate monuments were coming down in New Orleans. So if that is our present day, how is Confederate going to be any different?
The other red flag is the question about Benioff and Weiss in charge, and them bringing in two African-American writers to be producers and writers on the show. What they said [in a Vulture interview] was very telling. "…once we realized it was going to be a bigger story, we knew we didn’t wanna do it by ourselves because we’re … lazy."
That blew me away. They have been consistently criticized for Game of Thrones' gratuitous depiction of rape and the lack of the significant characters of color and the lack of diversity behind the camera.
When specifically asked in an interview right after the press release about these issues, they don't say, "We want to do it better in Confederate and so that's why we've brought on the Spellmans, so that they can handle these very sensitive issues with nuance and sensitivity."
No, what they said is that they were too lazy to do this on our own, and so they brought in two black people — and let's talk about the optics of that — to do the brunt of our work. But when push comes to shove, and they say, "Hey, you may want to reshoot this a little differently," it's still going to be Benioff and Weiss who have the final say.
How would you feel about this show if it had been created by totally different people? How central are Benioff and Weiss to your thoughts on it?
The fact that they are attached does not help. We get a lot of pushback, me and the other four women who started this campaign. "Oh, you're complaining about something you haven't seen." Well, that's true. But the press release, plus Benioff and Weiss and their work over the past six or seven years, give us no confidence that they'll be able to handle this well.
Regardless of who was at the helm, this is not an issue that we need to grapple with at this time as a country. So Confederate, on its own as it was presented to us, is a bad idea — even if you had an all-black crew. Our present-day reality is too close to the history that they want to show.
The other thing that we get a lot of is, "Well, people need to see how bad racism was and this will be an educational tool." Well, if we have Roots, and Django Unchained, and Glory, and Birth of a Nation, and Twelve Years a Slave — if all of that media has not convinced you, if the whip marks on the backs of these people have not convinced you that slavery was a bad idea, what is it about this particular show that is going to be educational for you that doesn't already exist? Why do we need more commodification of black pain for your enjoyment?
The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a totalitarian dystopia in which women are raped, tortured, and stripped of all rights. And women today are still battling to gain equal rights. Do you see parallels between this and Confederacy?
Seeing the subjugation of these women, forced to repopulate their community — how has that changed the thinking and the mindset? That's what Confederate’s supposed to do, right? “Let's open up our wounds so that people can heal,” and yada yada yada. But Handmaid's Tale isn't doing that. It's this sick sort of voyeurism about the subjugation of women.
Another comparison that we get a lot of pushback on is Man in the High Castle, an alternate history show where the Nazis are still in charge. The issue with that is Germany has attempted, at least, to grapple with its past. They have put Nazis and Nazi sympathizers on trial. They have gone to jail. Germany has paid reparations to Jewish folks and descendants of Jewish folks. They are trying to make things right, because of the incredibly awful history of the Holocaust. The United States has never done that. We have never attempted to reconcile our past with our present.
When I say something like, "We're still living with the vestiges of the enslavement of black and brown people, so that's why we have the disparity in housing, in employment, in education, with mass incarceration. All of that comes from slavery," somebody says to me, "Oh, you just need to get over it. Slavery was in the past. You just need to stop being a victim."
So are we leaving it in the past, or are we going to watch again? You've got to choose one. You can't both say you don't want to discuss slavery anymore but you want to see the show about slavery.
Critics like Roxane Gay and others call this "slavery fan fiction" or argue that it’s "romanticizing" slavery. Do you think it's too early to make these claims, before the show has been written?
No, I don't think it's too early, and I thought Roxane Gay's piece was brilliant. She's absolutely right because — what's the demographic for this show? Who is the intended audience? It can't possibly be black people, right? Because then what you're saying is, "Hey, black people, we know slavery is bad, but we want to show you how bad it was."
For people of color, we already know how bad things are. My 17-year-old son — I shudder every time he leaves the house. He gets pulled over because he's driving an SUV and some cop thinks he doesn't look like he should be driving an SUV. That's my reality.
If it's not being made for people of color, then that means this is made for white folk. Why, as a white person, would you want to see that unless it appeals to your base desire to see people enslaved and in pain? If you were an ally or, you know, a white person was trying to be "woke," watch Ava DuVernay's 13th documentary. Read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. There are things that do exist already for you to learn about the pain that our country has already suffered without this new show where they're going to be spending millions of dollars an episode.
Your #OscarsSoWhite campaign on Twitter drew global attention to the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards. Are there parallels between that movement and #NoConfederate? What was your goal for that one, and how did that influence what you're doing right now?
The goal of #OscarsSoWhite remains that people from traditionally underrepresented communities should have opportunities to tell their stories. There is natural synergy between #OscarsSoWhite and #NoConfederate. Why didn't Benioff and Weiss, who obviously have a considerable amount of leverage with HBO, take a step back and say, "You know what? The Spellmans are our friends for over 10 years. We are going to champion their work so that their stories can be told." That's what could have happened. That would have been the #OscarsSoWhite way to go, to involve more people in the process, in the decision-making stage, but also right at the very beginning at the screenwriting and pitch stage.
It's not just about the faces that we see onscreen. It's whose story is being told and who is given the opportunity to tell the story, so having a director of color, or having an LGBTQIA screenwriter, or having a person with disabilities who is the editor on the show. All of those things make a difference, because we all operate with our own frames of reference. This was a natural continuation.
One of the differences between the logistics is that #OscarsSoWhite was completely organic. It wasn't something that I planned. Here, with Confederate, four other women and I got together and intentionally said, "This is what we're going to do." It was much more organized.
I'm curious about the reactions you’ve received since last week. Have you had any questions or conversations with friends or critics that have been surprising?
We announced the #NoConfederate campaign last Friday morning. Sunday night at 9 pm, it was our intention to have the hashtag trending nationally. It trended No. 1 in the nation for over an hour for both Game of Thrones showings on the coast. It was also trending No. 2 in the world.
So, yes, we have all had conversations with friends and foes. "We need to wait and see," or, "You're jumping the gun," or, "People need to see this so they know how bad things were." It's not just bigots and intolerant folk. It's also from people of color who don't understand why we're doing this. I don't want to make it sound as if it's incredibly binary, because it's not. We've had those conversations since Friday.
If you don’t think this show should be created, who should be held responsible? HBO is airing it, but do the actors or the consumers have a role?
Actors have to make difficult choices, and so do the folks who work on the show. I don't want to discount directors and scriptwriters and all. I don't fault them, because they still need to put food on the table, and sometimes you're just not in a position to take the stand that you would otherwise want to take. I understand that.
I think the responsibility starts and ends with Benioff and Weiss. Now that they know there's going to be significant and continued backlash to their show, they need to scrap it and do something else. They still have the leverage with HBO to come up with a different idea or allow someone from a marginalized community to have an idea. Benioff and Weiss could do an open call.
That's where the primary responsibility lies. Right after them is HBO, because they're the ones who've been investing millions of dollars on this. There's a reason why we're not boycotting HBO, because they do some good work. Insecure is great. They're committed to change all of the August Wilson cycle of plays into films, so they've started with Fences, but they're going to do the other nine as well. This is Confederate-specific. It's not about HBO just yet.
There's also the consumer. The viewer also has a responsibility to say, "I'm not going to give HBO ratings for a show that shows the subjugation of people. That's going to be more divisive than inclusive, so I won't watch that show and perhaps I won't even stay with that network."
If Benioff and Weiss flipped the whole idea and did something similar to Black America, Amazon's new show — another alt-history about the Civil War, in which former slaves from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama created the nation of New Colonia — what would you think about that?
Well, they literally can't do that now, right — that's the reason Amazon dropped that press release when they did.
Let's be clear: Black America is not about the subjugation of white folks. Black America is going to be about black people thriving in this country and I don't believe that white people were mentioned. That's the difference. Why must we show the subjugation of any people to show that another set of people are doing well? I think that's what show creator Will Packer is speaking to.
We can have a positive and uplifting show, something that's alternate history, something that's going to be interesting and beautifully shot and all the rest of that stuff, but we don't have to show people who are enslaved to get there.
Correction: “Homogenization” of black pain was corrected to “commodification.”