What’s the Big Deal with HBO’s Confederate?

I’m not sure I understand all the furor and fear over Confederate.

This is the upcoming show from HBO that imagines what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War.

With respect to content, we don’t have much to go on. We’ve been told the basic premise of the show–a divided America where slavery persists in the South but not the North–but that’s about it. So all the complaints so far are based on speculation.

Detractors seem to imagine that the show will be either:

  1. A) A kind of modernized Lost Cause romance that mythologizes and glorifies the antebellum South. You know the genre: stately plantation houses, carriage drives shaded by pecan trees, southern belles drawling coquettish come-ons to dashing Virginia dandies with riding crops in their fists, cool mint juleps on the veranda while the sweet evening songs of the darkies come breezing over the cotton fields … yikes. Of course, the writers would have to update the imagery a bit. Picture Gone with the Wind, but with iphones. The poignant tale of a genteel young cotton-heiress as she sees the only world she’s ever known crumble around her ears. Trysts in the moonlight between a plucky, pixie-haired Berkeley abolitionist and the strong but simple slave whose life she saved. Ghastly.
  2. B) Game of Thrones, but with Confederate flags. Hour upon hour of abused black bodies. Black skin whipped and flayed and punctured. Black children beaten and bloody. Black adults stripped naked, exposed, humiliated. Blacks reduced by every brutality imaginable to a state of animal abjection. Like the middle scenes of Django Unchained, but spun out through tawdry plot twists over ninety hours of high-production melodrama. Black suffering as a gussied-up grindhouse spectacle. Blaxploitation via peak TV.

Maybe that’s how it’ll go. I don’t watch Game of Thrones, or the Handmaid’s Tale, or the The Man in the High Castle, or any of the other prestige shows that people are using as points of reference.

But I’d expect Confederate to look more like an allegory of the Civil Rights movement, with a higher stakes, a lot of dramatic compression, and (perhaps) a more triumphant denouement. That seems to be the obvious arc for a show like this: you restage the Civil War as a slave uprising, with Black people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line collaborating to overthrow their white oppressors. A show about (mostly) Black heroes from all walks of life who combine their talents to fight injustice. A Black intellectual who shapes the philosophy of the revolution. A slave with a talent for rallying mass movements. A Black politician in the northern states who struggles to convince his colleagues to liberate the slaves over the border and reunite the country. A vigilante in the southern states who champions guerrilla tactics and violent resistance.

That’s consistent with the teasers we’ve been given so far: “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.”

There are a lot of things you could do with that approach that don’t involve slaver boots stomping on brown faces. You could tell a kind of pocket history of Black political thought, with fictionalized or alternate-history versions of Dubois and Parks and Malcolm and Wright, the Panthers, the Harlem Renaissance, etc. You could draw parallels to Ferguson and BLM. You could have an Obama-like figure who enters the story as a sort of modern-day Lincoln, a Black president passing a present-day version of the Emancipation Proclamation. If the show went on long enough, you could imagine what came after liberation, reboot the history of the Jim Crow era, and imagine a postwar South in which former slaves take control. You could even start digging into the debates over separatism and Black Nationalism–should the triumphant ex-slaves carve their own state out of the defeated South and set up a kind of Afro-American Israel? What happens if this new African-American nation turns out to be a resounding success, and white people want to move in and enjoy the benefits? What about actual Africans who want to migrate to this North American Liberia? How do you handle the resulting culture clash?

There are criticisms to be made of this kind of approach too–that it’s just trite escapism diverting attention from genuine problems, that it oversimplifies a complex history, that it borrows the work of real activists to provide fodder for consumer entertainment. And I can easily envision a show that sets out to explore these ideas but somehow goes horribly wrong. (In fact, I’d say that’s the likeliest scenario.)

But there are a lot of ways to tell this kind of story that downplay white nostalgia and Black vulnerability and put the focus instead on Black thought and Black heroism–and that would actually be quite dispiriting to the kind of guy who pastes Confederate flag decals on his pickup truck. It seems to me this is the obvious route for the show creators to take, given the political mood of the country.

So why are people so sure the show will glorify racial oppression?

I have further thoughts, but I’ll save them for another post.

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