What were you thinking?
That’s the question a firing squad of journalists had for Casey Bloys, president of HBO programming, who ignited an inferno of internet controversy when he announced that Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s next project would be an alt-history drama called Confederate that imagines what would happen if slavery was never abolished.
Fanning the flames of outrage—these are two privileged white men who have decided to fictionalize the story of the slave experience—was the project’s announcement during Game of Thrones’ own bit of backlash for its lack of major characters of color on the show.
More, Confederate was solely an announcement. Outside of the news that Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, will also serve as executive producers, there are no other tangible details about the project, which had yet to set a storyline, had no scripts, and no casting.
So while presenting HBO’s new slate of series in front of TV reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour, Bloys was seemingly braced for the question: What were you thinking?
“What I’m curious about is the news cycle,” asked Hollywood Reporter TV critic Daniel Fienberg. “Why is it announced when there’s no script, no characters, no conversation to be had about it, so then when people get concerned about it, it becomes a ‘why are you talking about something that doesn’t have [anything to judge yet]?’”
Bloys initially responded with what was his clearly prepared statement about the controversy.
“Let me first say about Confederate because obviously you’d been thinking about it,” he said. “I will file this under hindsight is 20/20. If I could do it over again, our mistake—HBO’s mistake, not the producers of the series—was the idea that we’d be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and would require such care and thought on the part of the producers in a press release was misguided on our part. If I had to do it over again, what I would do is what we ended up doing after the fact with the four producers and have them sit with journalists.”Bloys is referring to interviews that Benioff, Weiss, and the Spellmans gave to Vulture following the backlash in an attempt to give more context to their incendiary idea and their still very vague and early plans for the series.
To give you more context on the controversy, here is the initial announcement:
“Confederate chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War,” the announcement read. “The series takes place 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. 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 was instant backlash when the alt-history drama was announced, from a community exhausted with not having ownership over their own stories, let alone opportunity to tell them on an outlet like HBO.
As flagged by Vulture, journalist Pilot Viruet tweeted: “Give me the confidence of white showrunners telling HBO they wanna write slavery fanfic.” Author Roxane Gay said, “It is exhausting to think of how many people at HBO said yes to letting two white men envision modern day slavery. And offensive.”
In a Daily Beast piece headlined “The Game of Thrones Creators’ Next Show Sounds Stupid as Hell,” Ira Madison III wrote: “It’s hard enough finding studios and networks that care about depicting human black characters in a non-sci-fi series. But for sci-fi and fantasy, it’s next to impossible. HBO can imagine robots and dragons but it struggles to imagine black people who aren’t slaves? I mean damn, we finally had an Oscars ceremony where a black film won Best Picture (Moonlight) without having slaves or servants in it. But I guess HBO’s eyes are still fixated on 12 Years a Slave.”
In the interview with Vulture, Benioff and Weiss along with the Spellmans responded to the backlash and explained why they wanted to tell the story. Arguably, their comments could be just as susceptible to the internet’s scoffing.
“It goes without saying slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history,” Weiss said. “It’s our original sin as a nation. And history doesn’t disappear. That sin is still with us in many ways. Confederate, in all of our minds, will be an alternative-history show. 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. It’s an ugly and a painful history, but we all think this is a reason to talk about it, not a reason to run from it. And this feels like a potentially valuable way to talk about it.”
As Bloys spoke Wednesday afternoon about how he expected the idea to be controversial but wasn’t expecting the reaction to be so vitriolic because he had the benefit of sitting with the producers, he was pressed again about how he could possibly be so naive as to think it wouldn’t cause a stir.
“We assumed there would be a response,” he said. “We assumed it would be controversial. We could have done a better job with the press rollout. We knew the idea would be controversial. I guess we thought it would be a little bit more standard, ‘Here’s the press release, what are the questions?” What we realized in retrospect is that people don’t have the benefit of the context or the conversation with the producers that we had.”
More, he said he almost explicitly trusts the talent of the writers, as they’ve managed such a success already with Game of Thrones.
“The bet for us is on our talent,” he said. “My hope is that people will judge the actual material as opposed to what it could be or should be or might be. They and we will rise or fall based on the quality of that material… These four writers are at the top of their game and they can do anything they want. This is what they feel passionately about, so I’m going to bet on that.”
Still, there was a demand to get more context into what these conversations were behind the scenes that gave HBO so much faith in the project and the nuance that was apparently lost in the press release.
“Everybody understands that there is a high degree of difficulty getting this right,” he said. “The thing that excites them and that excited us is that if you can get it right, there is a real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America. The thing Malcolm said in one of his interviews is that if you can draw a line between what we’re seeing in the country with voter suppression, mass incarceration, lack of access to quality education or health care, and draw a direct line between that and our past and our shared history, that’s an important line to draw and a conversation worth having. It is very difficult and they all acknowledged a high degree of difficulty. But again, they all feel and we all support them that it is a risk worth taking.”
Bloys then was asked more explicitly about how slavery would be depicted in the series, which is perhaps the most delicate talking point in the planned series—well, at least aside from its very premise and existence.
“On the depiction of slavery, the producers have said they’re not looking to do Gone With the Wind 2017,” he said. “It’s not whips and plantations. It is what they imagine the modern-day institution of slavery might look like.”
Then he went back to the argument that was so bothersome in the first place.
“Again, they haven’t written anything and I don’t have details beyond that,” he said. “I will say that in a case like this, even if the rollout wasn’t ideal, the response, I think, is valuable to the producers as they go to write and think about it. I think hearing the reactions is invaluable. Again, the key to all of this is the context and hearing from the creators themselves about what they want to do. What we heard is that they have a shared vision, a shared sensitivity to the material they’re taking on. I think the more people may hear from the producers themselves and why it’s important to them, the more it at least makes sense.”
The conversation ended with a final appeal from Bloys to reserve judgment: “People still may not like the show or like the idea for it, but they could at least hear from the producers why they’re trying to do it. All we can do is ask that people judge the final product of the artists and not what it could be or might be.”