Don’t join the rush to condemn ‘Game of Thrones’ team behind HBO’s ‘Confederate’
Whiteness does not prevent wokeness
There are as many reasons to worry about the next project from the Game of Thrones showrunners — an HBO series called Confederate, about an America where slavery still exists — as Queen Cersei has reasons to worry about her head staying attached to her neck.
But let’s give David Benioff and D.B. Weiss a chance. Whiteness does not prevent wokeness. And fiction can be more penetrating than fact, particularly in this era when too many people argue that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.
On Wednesday, HBO announced the forthcoming drama, written and executive produced by Benioff and Weiss, who turned the Thrones fantasy novels into a global phenomenon. Confederate is set in an alternate reality where the South won the Civil War. “Slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution,” HBO said in a statement. “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.”
The biggest reason to worry about Confederate is Game of Thrones’ troublesome relationship with race.
Benioff and Weiss’ show is almost devoid of blackness. Only two minor characters had African features, and they’re both long gone. Two current minor characters appear biracial: Grey Worm, who has no testicles, and Missandei, an ex-slave doomed to love Grey Worm when she’s not busy as Daenerys’ servant. The brown-skinned Dothraki are a stereotypical savage horde, reveling in public sex and the consumption of raw animal organs — and they worshipped fair Daenerys, of course. Overall, Thrones is so Eurocentric, even a dude named Shagga is white.
Such whiteness is somewhat to be expected, given that George R.R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire books that are the basis of Game of Thrones, says his world of Westeros is a fantasy analogue of the British Isles. “There weren’t many Asians in Yorkish England either,” Martin told a mournful fan in 2014. And Thrones delivers equal-opportunity barbarism, with white characters perpetrating an enormous variety of depraved and disturbing crimes.
Folks on Twitter predictably trashed the Confederate press release, questioning whether white writers could be trusted with such a deeply black story. In a more nuanced critique, David Perry, a writer and professor of history at Dominican University in suburban Chicago, expressed concern over Thrones’ treatment not only of race but of sexual violence as well.
“The showrunners have been defensive when engaged on these issues,” Perry, a Thrones fan, said by email. “Their decisions have been troubling here, and we’re only dealing with a medievalish fantasy world. … I am skeptical that they have the listening skills and humility to adeptly handle the even more tense subject matter of American slavery.
“You can’t do a show about American slavery without engaging the history of rape of enslaved women,” Perry continued. “Can we trust the people who decided to make the rape of Sansa about Theon’s emotions to portray that kind of trauma? I am always willing to be proved wrong. I always want to believe artists can develop and improve. But I’m deeply skeptical.”
But Cheo Hodari Coker, showrunner for the Netflix series Luke Cage, dismissed the critiques of “armchair Twitter cultural nationalists” and cautioned against judging a TV concept by its press release — or even by the creators’ previous work. Coker also expressed confidence that the involvement of black executive producer/writers Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who have worked on shows such as Empire and The Good Wife, will ensure that the explosive premise is handled with sensitivity.
“You can’t always apply someone’s previous creative track record to the work that hasn’t been done yet,” said Coker, who is friends with Benioff and Malcolm Spellman. “The Ice Cube of Straight Outta Compton is different from the Ice Cube that collaborated with the Bomb Squad, and different from the Ice Cube that made Are We There Yet? Just because there were elements of the Dothraki and some of these things that were problematic on Game of Thrones, does that mean this new concept will be equally problematic? No. You have to see it first.”
Responding to the criticism in an interview with Vulture, Weiss said, “It’s a science-fiction show. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama.”
Despite America’s long history of white storytellers seizing and misrepresenting black life, white writers have inhabited many authentic and classic black characters. Langston Hughes called Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin a “moral battle cry for freedom.” Richard Price illuminated the world of corner crack hustlers in Clockers. David Simon created some of the greatest (quasi) fictional black characters in American history with The Wire (which could actually be the most realistic depiction of an America where slavery never died).
The recent best-selling novel Underground Airlines explores the same premise as Confederate — what if slavery never ended? — in powerful and thought-provoking ways. It was written by a white author, Ben E. Winters. His protagonist is a black escaped slave, trapped into tracking down other fugitives. Winters’ research included reading slave narratives, contemporary and classic African-American literature, histories of slavery and the generations after slavery, and just talking to regular black folks about their modern lives.
“As we all know, our country has a long literary history of white people telling black stories and writing in black voices, and a lot of it is pretty gross,” Winters told me last year. “It was my aim from the outset to not be one of those. To bring empathy and intelligence to a work of speculative fiction that was also engaged with the great social issue of our time.
“The novel rose out of my powerful and sad sense of all the ways the shadow of slavery hangs over our country,” Winter said. “All the institutions and attitudes that were shaped during those centuries are still with us.”
They will be with us again when Confederate hits HBO, undoubtedly under great scrutiny. Game of Thrones is one of the towering achievements of this golden television age, largely because of the immense talents of Benioff and Weiss. Let’s see how they apply those talents to the great social issue of our time. Let them make their art, and then let them win or die. There is no middle ground.