HBO thinks "Confederate" will "advance the racial discussion," and that's scary

It's hard to do social commentary right — and the "Game of Thrones" creators are particularly ill suited to it

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 28, 2017 1:54PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Enrique Ramos Lopez)
(Getty/Enrique Ramos Lopez)

HBO's programming president may have intended to clear up the controversy surrounding the impending series "Confederate," but instead he inadvertently illustrated precisely why the new show is so problematic.

After describing the decision to announce the show through a press release as "misguided," Casey Bloys argued that if showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff "can get it right, there is real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America."

Bloys added, "If you can draw a line between what we're seeing in the country today with voter suppression, mass incarceration, lack of access to public education and healthcare and draw the line to our past and shared history, that's an important line to draw and a conversation worth having. [The producers] acknowledge this has a high degree of difficulty. It's a risk worth taking."

While Bloys isn't wrong that the subject of a counterfactual Confederate history lends itself to social commentary, his observation ignores that Weiss and Benioff have already struggled demonstrating the sensitivity on racegender and slavery that this type of subject demands in"Game of Thrones".

Also, if the goal is to offer insightful social commentary on American race relations through the paradigm of a hypothetical Confederate victory in the Civil War, that has already been done brilliantly in the 2004 faux documentary, "C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America."

That movie, which was written and directed by Kevin Willmott (who, unlike Benioff and Weiss, is African American), manages to brilliantly incorporate real-life events in American race history into an alternate historical timeline.

There, the catching of runaway slaves is juxtaposed with police brutality against African Americans. America sides with the Axis powers during World War II, convinces the Nazis to replace their Holocaust with mass enslavement of the Jews, and launched a surprise attack against Japan on December 7, 1941. The famous 1960 presidential election sees John F. Kennedy oppose Richard Nixon on the issue of slavery, and pay for that position with his life. The list goes and on and on.

While the creators of "Confederate" seem to understand that this particular narrative can be used to deconstruct contemporary racism, "C.S.A." works so well because it's presented in a documentary format that allows for those themes to be explored in a detached manner. The movie is entertaining, to be sure, and even darkly comical at times, but in the end it is meant to be taken at face value as a sobering thought experiment.

By contrast, a melodramatic television series of the kind we got with "Game of Thrones" has insensitive disaster written all over it. It's hard to imagine any social commentary that it could offer which "C.S.A." didn't do a thousand times better. Not only that, it's very easy to see how the same snafus that led to accusations of racism and sexism against "Game of Thrones" could become offensive here.

Like all works of art, of course, "Confederate" deserves a chance to be seen before anyone passes judgment on it. That said, Bloys must be corrected when he says that the problem here was with how the idea was presented. The problem here is the idea itself.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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