by Elizabeth Johnson, The Opportunity Agenda
Imagine a world where the South successfully seceded from the United States, where slavery still exists, and where the former United States have become “a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”
Umm, what? When your announcement of your latest escapist drama has me puzzled, irked, and confused by the end of sentence two, we’re not good. I thought that I had an active and curious imagination, but I’m stopped in my tracks by the request to imagine slavery that “has evolved into a modern institution.”
Unfortunately, this is what HBO has demanded of us all with the announcement of the new drama Confederate, from the creators of the rape-and-dragons epic Game of Thrones. The concept is a world in which the South successfully seceded and slavery apparently continues to this day.
Given the ways in which slavery continues to impact the lives of millions in this country, it is offensive in the extreme to even contemplate “escaping” into a TV show in which the institution itself survives.
Setting aside the high bar for the suspension of disbelief, let’s discuss what HBO and the show’s creators are actually asking us to contemplate. A world in which slavery “has evolved into a modern institution.” What does that actually mean? We are asked to envision that the past 160 years have included the evolution and development of technology, art, politics, even snack food, but not moral structures? We are being asked to believe that it is still considered acceptable to openly own human beings. And somehow Black folks have been unable to destroy this system?
It is this request – the demand that we contemplate for our amusement a world in which people are still owned by other people and it is not universally reviled – that is part of the motivation for April Reign (creator of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign) to demand that HBO scrap this project. As she notes:
“The commodification of Black pain for the enjoyment of others must stop,” … “Earlier this month, there were protests about taking down Confederate monuments. 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.”1
The very idea that we consider the central conceit of the show, given the current state of race relations in this country, is ridiculous. William M. Carter Jr., dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, has written extensively about judicial use of the Thirteenth Amendment to challenge the “badges and incidents of slavery,” meaning the ongoing residual effects of slavery.
Carter argues that Thirteenth Amendment analysis supports the power of the judiciary to redress these residual effects.2 Given the ways in which slavery continues to impact the lives of millions in this country, it is offensive in the extreme to even contemplate “escaping” into a TV show in which the institution itself survives.
This is the genesis of the recently-launched #NoConfederate campaign, asking people to use the hashtag while Game of Thrones airs. The campaign, developed by Reign, journalist ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, screenwriter and filmmaker Lauren Warren, Shanelle Little, and Black Girl Nerds founder and managing editor Jamie Broadnax caused #NoConfederate to trend on Twitter on July 30th, the night the show aired. As Theodore-Vachon notes, this premise is not trusted in these particular hands:
Despite the fact that Benioff and Weiss tapped two Black producers to work on their new show, the show does not appear to have been conceived and pitched with the involvement of Black voices. The proposed show amplifies the argument for diverse voices in content creation if Hollywood is going to effectively mirror our current diverse and vibrant reality.
Indeed, The Opportunity Agenda’s recent Power of Pop report details helpful tips for improving portrayals of marginalized communities in pop culture, including uplifting nuanced portrayals of these communities. The report also recommends that content creators encourage “new storylines that avoid tired and harmful stereotypes and more authentically depict the [marginalized] experience.”
Nothing about the initial announcement of this show, or the subsequent support for the show, has addressed the harm of reinforcing tired stereotypes or spoken to the possibility of an authentic depiction of the ongoing damage of slavery. It begs the question whether there was any possible formulation of this show that could have been more likely to spark beneficial conversations and lead to the development of more constructive narratives?
We’ll never know, but what is clear is that, now more than ever, there is urgency to the argument for diverse voices in content creation.
2. Carter, William M., Race, Rights, and the Thirteenth Amendment: Defining the Badges and Incidents of Slavery (March 1, 2006). UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 40, p. 1311, 2007; Case Research Paper Series in Legal Studies Working Paper 06-04 . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=888760