A few weeks ago, HBO issued a press release that show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss of “Game of Thrones” were leading the charge for a show entitled “Confederate.” The press release states that it will posit what would have happened post-Battle of Antietam in 1862 where a lost field order fell into the hands of the Union army. In other words, what would have happened if the South had won the war? The black social media syndicate known as Black Twitter proceeded to lay into the mere idea of it.
Known as alternate history, it is a well-flourishing literary and film genre. The genre’s basic premise is to go back to a historical event, posit a different outcome and build a world with characters and plot based on that alternative timeline. This genre is not to be confused with dystopian future tales that often create or assume a not-yet event that throws the world off of it’s current course.
A quick search for alternate history literature in Amazon or even Google shows that the American Civil War and World War II are the two most popular niches in which people write both fiction and non-fiction. Historians always play the “what if” game in non-fiction tomes focusing on one battle or one decision made by a war general. The sheer number of books and articles teasing out the “what if” hypotheses has shown that the consuming public has a voracious appetite for this. Currently, Amazon Prime is producing “The Man in the High Castle,” based on a novel of the same title that is an alternate history dependent on the United States and the Allied powers losing World War II with Nazi Germany occupying the eastern half of the United States to the Rocky Mountains and Japan occupying the Pacific coast. And as much flak as he received, Quentin Tarentino’s “Django Unchained” was not just a box office smash, but also critically acclaimed fictional telling of a one-man slave revolt in the antebellum South. Even I went to go see the movie twice! Less critically acclaimed, but equally as important to this essay, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer” featuring a machete-wielding, vampire-hunting Harriet Tubman was certainly a movie that fell into the genre of alternate history.
I’ll admit, there’s a personal fascination to this as a genre. Much like the consuming American public, the “what if” fascinates me. Especially the “what if” around slavery and the potency of a real Confederate States of America. These are things that have relevance in a day and age where discussions around race, white supremacy and racism are rhetorical mine-fields for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Not to mention the political connections of the current White House to alt-right operatives that closely have aligned themselves with white supremacist ideology and organizations, the way the United States uniquely engages in race both historically and currently continues to hold our collective fascination.
If I had to guess, I think the gist of pushback that HBO received from this wasn’t a result of people being against the genre, or even specifically black folks not having the collective willful imagination to ask “what if” on such as divisive topic, nor even that the two black co-producers didn’t get equal billing as Joy Reid points out, but rather it was based on this history of how films and TV shows centered around race set in the historical past–alternate histories or not–have been ingloriously handled. More often than not, many of these historical and contemporary (re-)tellings, fiction and non-fiction, are based on the gaze of the white liberals characters. These movies rely on a white savior narrative that highlight the moral bravery that the one white person had in the face of racial injustice, especially on behalf of the persons of color. Think of Skeeter in “The Help,” or Jake Briggance in “A Time to Kill,” where they are fictional stories created on the horror of race, but still centered around the valiant and triumphant stories of the white central character. Parenthetically speaking, the vigilante justice of Carl Lee Haley in “A Time to Kill” seems even less plausible in 2017 than it did in 1996–even after an O.J. Simpson trial and acquittal! While on one hand, I agree that it’s worth telling the story of white folks who weren’t rabid racists, since they did exists, it’s usually told in a way that subordinates the story of black folks. It provides a point of sympathetic entry for well-meaning whites in contemporary audiences at the expense of the narrative of blacks. Given that Hollywood has been absolutely obtuse over centralizing black narratives over the years, the stories told in “12 Years a Slave,” “Hidden Figures” and “Fences” can hardly make up for the last nine decades of filmmaking in this country.
While movies like “Django Unchained” and “Get Out” that focus heavily on black characters, they function as “must see” movies to watch rather than “can’t wait to see movies” akin to “The Fate of the Furious” or another Marvel comic release. “Django Unchained” and “Get Out” are two well-known and recent movies that challenge that abscond the white savior narrative and allow black characters to save themselves against white antagonists. While yes, Schultz character in “Django” did have soteriological characteristics, I’d like to think the final scenes of with Django blasting any and all white people to kingdom come should account for something. And certainly with “Get Out,” every white person with a speaking role functioned as an enemy of the central character, Chris, who survived as the credits began to roll. Even writer, producer and director Jordan Peele said that “the ending needed to transform into something that gives us a hero, that gives us an escape…”
But these movies provided a type of dual representation, something that most movies aren’t able to do. On the one hand, black audiences cheered at the end of “Django Unchained” and “Get Out” for seeing not just the moral victory, but the realised victory of a black face on screen. Based on that simple fact, one could even argue that both these films dabble in the genre of Afrofuturism providing a revisionist history that shows preference for black characters. That makes it all the more easy for white audiences to disassociate from the evil white characters because it was just a movie; a kind of anti-representation. Many white liberals watching those two movies would never identify with the Calvin Candies of the world. Or the Armitages, even though they would have voted for Obama a third time.
I would allege that the fear expressed by the likes of Joy Reid and Roxane Gay are worries about are there a certain type of white people who watch a show like “Confederate” simply to scratch the itch of what if or watch secretly wishing it was reality. There is a fear that a show like “Confederate” becomes a type of white existential pornography, hoarded and passed around in secret white-only social groups that quietly express glee and mirth that such representation still exists. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Peele said
Slave movies can be amazing, but it is interesting to me that the industry and this country have found a certain safety in the American slave narrative — I think because these films take place a long time ago, there is a certain protection and we don’t have to face current issues of racism
And for black folk, that’s a scary prospect. Is the lady at the DMV who serves you or your co-worker on a work team possibly one of the ones who falls into the “I wish this was reality” ideological camp? Given that the stories of white municipal officials sending racist emails to one another is a recurring theme suggests that black folks may be operating in work and communal spaces where deep-seated racial resentment is real. Or the fact that a mayoral candidate in St. Petersburg, Florida publicly stated that blacks received reparations in the personhood of Barack Obama and that black folks need to “go back to Africa” in 2017 presumes that there are many white people who believe these ideas, but know better than to say them aloud. Especially concerning the racist interdepartmental emails in Ferguson, Missouri between a former municipal court employee and a police officer, the subsequent Department of Justice investigation connected the racial bias displayed in the emails to the outright discrimination of black citizens of Ferguson. These are real and founded fears. Far too often, for black people, the boogeyman is very real.
If I had HBO, I’d watch it. More because of my affinity for the genre than anything else. But, as an American consuming public, we need to be aware if we watch and read things like this for the sake of an intellectual exercise or do some of us tacitly wish for an alternate reality.