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Black Producers, HBO Defend Upcoming Series 'Confederate'

Nichelle Tramble Spellman (left) and her husband Malcolm Spellman are African American writers who are also executive producers on <em>Confederate.</em>
HBO; Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Nichelle Tramble Spellman (left) and her husband Malcolm Spellman are African American writers who are also executive producers on Confederate.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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