Black Producers, HBO Defend Upcoming Series 'Confederate'

Jul 27, 2017
Originally published on July 27, 2017 5:47 pm

It may be the most explosive response ever to a TV show that hasn't shot a frame, doesn't have a script, or even a plot written yet.

All we know is HBO's Confederate will be a TV show set in a modern America where the Confederacy never lost the Civil War and slavery still exists. After days at the center of the controversy, Executive Producer Nichelle Tramble Spellman says the experience has been like getting "a crash course in crazy."

That painful education began last week, after HBO issued a press release announcing Confederate as the next series under development by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the two executive producers of the cable channel's hit series Game of Thrones.

According to the release, Confederate will be set "in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution." Emailed to journalists just a few days after HBO aired the widely-anticipated first episode from Game of Thrones new season, the announcement sparked lots of coverage and bitter criticism.

Writing for the New York Times, Roxane Gay declared "I Don't Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction." The Daily Beast called it "white nonsense." And social media posts by the hundreds snarked at a pair of white, male producers from Game of Thrones, a show long criticized for its lack of diversity and depictions of sexualized violence, tackling such an incendiary topic.

All of which made Nichelle Tramble Spellman and her husband, Malcolm Spellman – African American writers who are also executive producers on Confederate – feel marginalized by black journalists and pundits they say should have known better.

"Regardless of how awkwardly that press release was phrased, we are involved as peers, as full executive producers and as partners," says Malcolm. "If you render us a footnote, the assumption is that we're just a prop or a shield...Our own people marginalized us like that."

But, HBO's own press release emphasized Benioff and Weiss, who are listed as creators of the series and showrunners; Malcolm now admits "the rollout just wasn't right."

Now, as HBO and the Spellmans push back by letting the world know that two socially-conscious black producers are intimately involved in developing the show, a question arises:

Is it fair to condemn a TV series before anyone has seen a single episode?

"First thing to tell everybody is what the project is not," says Malcolm Spellman. "The project is not antebellum imagery, it's not whips, it's not plantations, it's not a celebration or pornography for slavery. And, most importantly, it's not an entire nation of slaves."

Instead, the couple says, the series will likely feature an America divided, where the South has a system which looks like Apartheid-era South Africa. The goal, they say, is to show how today's problems with racial issues — over-policing of black people, disenfranchisement through voter I.D. laws, lack of representation at the highest level of power — is rooted in the nation's legacy of slavery.

As much as some people may object to seeing a story where black people are once again victims and white supremacy rules the day, Malcolm Spellman says such a story, done well, can speak to the anxieties of our modern political moment.

"I think there is less discomfort is dealing with slavery when it is in the past," says Malcolm Spellman. "But talking about white supremacy [in today's times] without trying to...talk about where it comes from, is crazy to us."

HBO president of programming Casey Bloys faced journalists at a news conference in Los Angeles Wednesday, saying the backlash against Confederate was the result of issuing a press release with no context.

"If you read that press release, a logical conclusion would be that the guys from Game of Thrones are doing a fantasy show – similar to Game of Thrones—where slavery is legal," Bloys told me before the news conference. "If that hit me cold, I would say, 'What?' So I understand the reaction."

Maybe HBO underestimated the contempt among some critics for how Game of Thrones has dealt with diversity and sexual violence in the past — and an indication that some people simply don't trust the same guys who developed that project to handle a series on slavery.

Overcoming that negative reaction, once HBO finally has episodes of Confederate to show the public, may be difficult (just ask the producers of ABC's Black-ish how long it took them to convince some skeptical viewers that their title wasn't the insulting creation of a clueless network TV executive).

Sometimes, it seems, TV executives need to be reminded how sensitive these subjects are. And Bloys admitted the backlash could help their awareness.

But Nichelle Tramble Spellman remains unnerved by the way so many people attacked the show despite knowing so little about it. And the couple is adamant about one thing: They will never create a series that would feel like a fantasy to white supremacists, even by accident.

"We are black and we are not going to create that reality," Malcolm Spellman says, firmly. "we are not doing that kind of show."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Not a line has been written, no characters have been cast, and there's not even a plot summary. But HBO is in the middle of a big controversy over a new TV series called "Confederate." It's about a world where the South didn't lose the Civil War. Critics say it's offensive. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talked to the African-American husband and wife producing team who are fighting for the idea.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Nichelle Tramble Spellman says it's been like a crash course in crazy. Last week, HBO announced plans to develop "Confederate," a drama set in an alternate reality where slavery is part of contemporary American society. Critics denounced the idea as insensitive and exploitive. One reason - the producers touted by HBO as creators and showrunners were David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "GAME OF THRONES MAIN TITLE")

DEGGANS: Weiss and Benioff are executive producers of HBO's most popular drama series, "Game Of Thrones." They're also white. And "Game Of Thrones" has been criticized for years over its lack of ethnic diversity and depictions of sexualized violence. But Nichelle Tramble Spellman and her husband Malcolm Spellman, two African-American writers, are also executive producers on the project. Nichelle said she felt marginalized by people ready to assume the worst.

NICHELLE TRAMBLE SPELLMAN: We knew that there would be a reaction to the material. But the press release was vague, so everybody ran with the worst parts of their imagination to figure out what it was the four of us were doing. So I was kind of surprised by how much the misinformation traveled and how far it got.

DEGGANS: The Spellmans, who have worked on shows like "Empire" and "The Good Wife," insist they're equal partners in developing the show with Weiss and Benioff. And although they haven't written an outline yet, Malcolm Spellman is clear on what the show is not.

MALCOLM SPELLMAN: The project is not antebellum imagery. It's not whips. It's not plantations. It's not a celebration or pornography for slavery. And most importantly, it's not an entire nation of slaves.

DEGGANS: Malcolm Spellman says the situation in their American South will be comparable to apartheid-era South Africa. What they hope to show is how slavery is directly connected to racial issues we struggle with now from police brutality and mass incarceration in communities of color to suppression of voting rights.

HBO has pushed back against the backlash, arranging interviews with the Spellmans to show there are black producers involved. But the initial news release for the show emphasized Weiss and Benioff's role, apparently to let "Game Of Thrones" fans know what the pair would do when that series ends next year. So if HBO can't get the announcement right, can they be trusted to get the show right? I asked HBO programming president Casey Bloys. His response? Give us a chance.

CASEY BLOYS: All we can ask is give these artists the chance to have their work evaluated. And all of us, the executive producers and HBO, will rise or fall on the quality of the work.

DEGGANS: The Spellmans say they will consult historians and experts to ground their fiction in known facts. I asked, is it possible that despite their best efforts they might create a show that white supremacists would see as validation for their beliefs in the way some bigots in the 1970s saw Archie Bunker as a hero instead of a buffoon on "All In The Family"?

M. SPELLMAN: We are black. We are not going to create that reality. We're not doing that show. We wouldn't do that show.

DEGGANS: As a critic, I never want to judge a show before I see it. But I do hope this controversy serves as a wake-up call for TV executives who still sometimes overlook how delicate these issues can be. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUNDISLAVA'S "DIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.