HBO recently announced a forthcoming television series to be helmed by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, creators of the popular fantasy series adaptation, Game of Thrones. The new prestige drama, Confederate, is premised on an alternative history of the American Civil War in which the Confederacy successfully seceded from the Union. The series, according to HBO’s press release, will show “the events leading to the Third American Civil War” in a nation where “slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”
News of the project has drawn the ire of many viewers weary of ahistorical narratives that glorify, even inadvertently, the antebellum South and Confederate cause. Activists have taken their protest to social media, with the hashtag #NoConfederate going viral on Twitter. Despite widespread criticism, HBO has continued to defend its decision to pursue the project, and urged its audience to give Confederate the benefit of the doubt. In a recent interview, the show’s writers and executive producers—Benioff, Weiss, Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife), and Malcolm Spellman (Empire)—cite the merits and long tradition of the alternative-history genre. Describing slavery as America’s “original sin,” Weiss stated that Confederate aims to “show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could…. 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.” Yet writers Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, have argued that these alternative histories do little more than obscure history and prevent an honest appraisal of the present. Confederate, as a work of fiction, certainly can exist as an enthralling reimagining of history, but to what end?
Undergirding the varied responses to and censures of Confederate is a preoccupation with the politics of public memory. Writing about public memory becomes particularly fraught within fictional genres, where the desire to create multidimensional characters and compelling plots can exist in tension with the historical record. A nuanced portrayal of an SS officer, for example, might rightfully be denounced as apologism; many similarly argue that the trope of the benevolent slaveholder or the narrative of Robert E. Lee as a conflicted, honorable hero are harmful for their revisionism and suggestions of moral ambiguity. Independent of the aesthetic value of these stories, there are ethical concerns inextricable from the ways we remember or romanticize the past. Even in fiction—perhaps especially in fiction—it matters how these stories are told, for the distinctions between collective memory, truth, and fiction are more mutable than one might think.
The difficulty, then, is to create an imaginative literary work without further reinforcing a potentially harmful and ahistorical mythology. In the same way, Benioff and Weiss must grapple with this ethical challenge—freed from the constraints of historical fact, how can Confederate re-imagine the dark, traumatic legacy of slavery without invoking a sense of nostalgia?
Criticisms of Confederate are certainly not unfounded, though they may be premature. It is not wrong or unethical to probe our national memory through nuanced, fictionalized narratives—in fact, the opposite is true. There is an extensive literary tradition of imagined, alternate histories—commonly depicting a world in which Nazi Germany had won the Second World War or the South had won the Civil War—that ask, what if? The alternative-history genre is predicated on the idea that our social reality could always be otherwise: our understandings of the world and our settled moral convictions are contingent upon historical conditions, which are in turn the result of a series of critical turning points and chance disruptions. Though on its face this genre can be read as an attempt to show empathy for the slaveholder, the dictator, or the unwitting soldier, there is arguably something deeper and more subversive at work. To the degree that it is successful, alternate history often works by forcing us to imagine what it would be like to live in a society where something like slavery seems normal. It challenges our lazy assumption of history as something inevitable and solid, and it invites us to think about the future as something other than a predictable extension of current trends.