Amazon’s Black America and HBO’s Confederate: Two halves of the same alt-history coin
James R | On 07, Aug 2017
From Timeless and The Man in the High Castle to SS-GB, alt-history TV is having something of a moment, as writers, spurred on by the golden age of the small screen, seize the opportunity to imagine a different version of our reality. While both Amazon’s High Castle and the BBC’s SS-GB tackled the possibility of the world under Nazi rule, though, two new series have emerged in recent weeks exploring an even more controversial topic: slavery.
The first is Confederate, a new series that was unveiled by HBO last month. If you’ve already heard of it, there’s a good reason why: the four-part drama imagines what would have happened if the Southern states seceded from the USA during the Civil War and continued to practice slavery.
The show was announced alongside the premiere of the new season of Game of Thrones, as the new flagship project for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The programme is a collaboration with Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, the couple behind The Good Wife, who will act as executive producers.
The very idea of the series being create by two white men, though, sparked an immediate backlash that you wouldn’t need a Three-Eyed Raven to foresee. During an episode of Game of Thrones last week, a campaign by April Reign saw the phrase #NoConfederate become the number one trending topic on Twitter in the US, reiterating the widely-voiced criticisms of the show.
“The commodification of Black pain for the enjoyment of others must stop,” Reign told CNN. “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.”
HBO has since responded with a statement saying it has “great respect for the dialogue and concern being expressed around Confederate”.
“We have faith that Nichelle, Dan, David and Malcolm will approach the subject with care and sensitivity. The project is currently in its infancy so we hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see,” HBO added.
New York Times critic Roxane Gay blasted the idea as “slavery fan fiction”.
“These creators can imagine a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War and Black people are still enslaved, but they can’t or aren’t interested in imagining a world where, say, things went in a completely different direction after the Civil War and, say, white people are enslaved. Or a world where slavery never happened at all,” she wrote.
Enter Amazon’s new series, Black America. Announced last week in response to the Confederate debate, the show also depicts an alt-history, one where African Americans are not only freed but secure the Southern states of Lousiana, Mississippi and Alabama as reparations for slavery, giving them land and freedom to shape their own destiny. They form a sovereign nation: New Colonia.
The drama follows the relationship between the two countries, with producer Will Packer (Girls Trip, Ride Along) and The Boondocks creator and Black Jesus co-creator Aaron McGruder on creative duties. While Packer told Deadline about the project in response to the Confederate controversy, though, it has been in the works for some time.
“It felt this was the appropriate time to make sure that audiences and the creative community knew that there was a project that preexisted and we are pretty far down the road with it,” he explained.
“I was immediately enthralled by the idea; I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what a provocative and bold piece of content it could be,” he added. “Being a fan of Aaron, I thought he definitely had the right tone, the right voice, the right wit to handle a project like this. Aaron and I sat together and talked about what a huge opportunity and responsibility it would be to do this project and do it right.”
“You would be hard pressed to find many black Americans who have not thought about the concept of reparation, what would happen if reparations were actually given,” he continued. “As a content creator, the fact that that is something that has been discussed thoroughly throughout various demographics of people in this country but yet never been explored to my knowledge in any real way in long-form content, I thought it was a tremendous opportunity to delve into the story, to do it right.”
Historians have been brought in to consult on Amazon’s project to make sure that their story is told in an accurate and responsible way, he noted, although he did not comment directly on HBO’s Confederate out of respect to its creators, because the programme has not yet been made.
As for his own alternative history, Black America “will speak to where we are now and the mistakes this country has made and things we should do going forward”, he said.
Regardless of how they both turn out, Black America is a reminder that even in the world of alt-histories, alternate alt-histories can be a vital way to show the other side of the coin.