There are good ideas and bad ideas.
Time and effort can elevate good ideas into great ones, but when you have a bad idea, like electing an entitled imbecile to be president, giving that idea time or space to grow won’t make it better. It will almost always make things worse.
The world is seeing that truth play out before their eyes as Americans who insisted on giving Donald Trump “a chance” now scramble to secure their basic rights and livelihoods under his reckless regime.
Since HBO still hasn’t found the good sense to cancel Confederate, which imagines a modern America that never abolished slavery, the network might be as naive and ignorant as the voters who elected Trump on the logic that it’d be a good idea to “shake things up” in Washington. And if HBO and parent company Time Warner go through with producing the Neo-slave fantasy in spite of the clear message from consumers that it’s a bad idea, it will be as complicit in the once-esteemed brand’s decline as Trump’s great white America has been in their own.
As with the rise of Trump, the crazy White folks running HBO can’t for one second say EVERYONE didn’t try to warn against this terrible mistake.
In the midst of the overwhelming backlash HBO received following the Confederate announcement in late July, Amazon’s media team proved to be as cunning as the Russian government in its quest to knock the premium cable giant out of its pole position in the highly-competitive race for streaming dominance.
For those who don’t know, the two media giants are in a heated competition with brands like Netflix, Roku and Apple to see which service will produce the best content and sign up the most subscribers over the coming decade and beyond. The streaming Battle Royale will likely crown the next ruler of millennial media, a throne that will come with endless money, power and respect as the market matures and Hollywood and cable TV fade into extinction.
In a move that would have made Vladimir Putin proud (for both its boldness and pettiness), content underdog and distribution monster Amazon decided to ride the wave of bad feedback HBO received for Confederate. Tuesday, August 1, the service announced a much more interesting antebellum: Black America, a witty drama produced and written by Will Packer (Girls Trip, Ride Along, Straight Outta Compton) and Aaron McGruder (Black Jesus, Boondocks).
The premise, which has been green-lit for production since February according to Deadline, imagines that Black Americans were granted reparations after slavery and eventually established their own independent society, claiming sovereignty from the rest of America. 150 years after abolition, the new country of former slaves, named New Colonia, is thriving in today’s competitive globalized marketplace while America struggles to keep up.
Without seeing a second of footage from either project, it shouldn’t be hard to tell which concept is a winner and which one will flop. The critiques of Confederate are not based on covers, posters or trailers — it starts on a much more fundamental level than marketing. It only takes a few seconds of listening and critical thought to see why the entire concept is flawed. The team creating it, Game Of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, is unqualified (as proven by their tone deaf reaction to the negative feedback), and they have a terrible track record of portraying Black characters with grace, dignity or respect.
Weiss and Benioff are undeniably gifted storytellers. But Confederate is based in an imaginary world that only white men would want to get lost in. There are no dragons or zombies as far as we know, but the series is based in an alternate reality where the south won the Civil War and slavery is still legal below the Mason-Dixon line. We all spent enough years overlooking Thrones’ blatantly racist imagery to know that we don’t need to spend anymore time in the minds of these two visionaries — especially when their minds are running wild with fantasies that put Black people back in bondage in a modern context (as if we needed a fairy tale to imagine that).
When Weiss and Benioff went to their HBO bosses with the terrible idea for Confederate — which they say was inspired by years of obsessing over a close battle that may or may not have changed the outcome of the Civil War — they were high on the same strain of privilege and hubris that made Trump decide to run for president. Those who have enabled and made excuses for their incompetence will be just as responsible for the disaster that follows as the Republican Party and mainstream media are for legitimizing Trump.
Sure, it sounds good that Weiss and Benioff invited their favorite Black friends — Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife, Justified) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire) — to co-write Confederate, an opportunity that would be hard for any sane professional to turn down. But as Weiss, Benioff and the network tried to hide behind their “friends” to deflect the negative feedback that poured in last week, it should have been clear to the Spellmans that they were not being lifted into a position of power by a friend or ally, but being used as a prop in power games that were raging far above their heads. That’s how Ned Stark lost his noggin on Thrones. And HBO has never been hesitant to axe a show that isn’t dominating either ratings or reviews.
The clear implication in hiring and announcing the Spellmans was that these two Black voices were hired to keep this imaginary world grounded when the Thrones team drifts into their “LaLa Land” of white privilege. But if the Spellmans are ultimately answering to creators and producers Benioff and Weiss, will their creative roles be much different than the modern slaves they’ll be creating for the show?
There’s not much record of Benioff, Weiss or the show’s other producers, Bernadette Caulfield (Big Love, Thrones) and Carolyn Strauss (Thrones), speaking to or for the causes of Black people in America. So what suddenly inspired two white men, two white women and a married Black couple to tackle the subject of slavery on the biggest possible media forum? And the exciting idea of connecting today’s dots of mass incarceration, and educational and economic inequality to the painfully visible legacy of chattel slavery will come as a surprise to everyone but Black people. What great insights will we find in this imaginary world of modernized slavery that we can’t already examine in modern capitalism’s real life global plantation?
As a fan of Thrones, I have wondered many times why Benioff, Weiss and original author George R. R. Martin chose to marginalize melanin in their imaginary kingdom. Why are the Black and brown character on Thrones hopeless slaves, unambitious pirates and ruthless savages instead of viable candidates for power? Why do only the white people have access to magic and majesty? Is this also how they and their audience see the real world?
I don’t have to give Confederate a chance to know that it is a white-run show on a white-owned network that will exploit Black pain. I don’t have to wonder if there will be good slave masters and moral dilemmas that excuse Americans for being complicit in white supremacy — that’s a given when you read the premise or study the work of its creators. And no matter how characters are portrayed or what situations they are placed in, it’s will always be a terrible idea to glamorize the Confederacy or give a lick of legitimacy to its values. Especially with the Trump administration openly riling Neo-Nazi’s and Civil War re-enactors for political power.
HBO has told the stories of Lackawanna Blues, Henrietta Lacks and Dorothy Dandridge. It also produced Idlewild with OutKast and Something The Lord Made with the artist formerly known as Mos Def. But the vast majority of their deep library is best described by this passage by the VerySmartBrothas (which applies to pretty much every profitable industry in America): “A self-fulfilling circle jerk where white dudes get the money because investors trust them more than anyone else because white dudes’ successes are more spectacular because white dudes get more chances to be spectacular because white dudes get the money because investors trust them more than anyone else.”
But the mere idea of a show like Black America diminishes most concerns about the trainwreck that will be Confederate. With a genius writer like McGruder and a red-hot producer like Packer, Amazon has a dream team that will speak to and portray a Black perspective on slavery worthy of everyone’s attention. And unlike the competition at HBO, the streaming service have a concept that easily passes the elevator pitch test — a fifteen-second sell that wise ears can quickly make a call on.
With Confederate debates dominating social media and trending topics calling to cancel the show throughout the weekend, Packer and McGruder felt it was only right to announce Black America. “I felt this was the appropriate time to make sure that audiences and the creative community knew that there was a project that preexisted and we are pretty far down the road with it,” Packer told Deadline. It would be fascinating to know if he and McGruder ever pitched their project to HBO.
The Black America team is reportedly hiring historians to consult them in making a realistic depiction of a post-reparations America. And for those imagining the show’s New Colonia as a Black utopia similar to the prosperous communities of color shown in the historically-based drama Rosewood and the fictional comedy Boomerang, the mere thought of a project like Black America causes excitement.
As Packer told Deadline after the announcement, “You would be hard pressed to find many Black Americans who have not thought about the concept of reparation, what would happen if reparations were actually given. As a content creator, the fact that that is something that has been discussed thoroughly throughout various demographics of people in this country but yet never been explored to my knowledge in any real way in long-form content, I thought it was a tremendous opportunity to delve into the story, to do it right.”
Packer went on to promise that “Ultimately, Black America will speak to where we are now and the mistakes this country has made and things we should do going forward.” His explanation of the premise continued, “what if reparations were given? What would this country and that alternate country look like today, how would Americans look, our communities, relations, I think that there definitely is a message about how we co-exist today where that didn’t happen, there weren’t reparations, and you still have black Americans who are suffering from the effects of slavery in various ways.”
Packer has not directly spoken on Confederate, but he told Deadline, “the fact that there is the contemplation of contemporary slavery makes it something that I would not be a part of producing nor consuming. Slavery is far too real and far too painful, and we still see the manifestations of it today as a country for me to ever view that as a form of entertainment.”
The difference in tone and tact in Packer’s comments versus HBOs dismissive “wait and see” mentality is the most obvious sign of which of these projects will succeed and which will fail:
While HBO, Weiss, Benioff and the Spellmans arrogantly belittled critics for judging the show before seeing it, Packer and McGruder were humbled by the “huge opportunity and responsibility” they felt to do the Black America project right. Judging by their masterful work on previous socio-political projects, including McGruder and Reginald Hudlin’s Bush-era comic novel satire Birth Of A Nation, which imagined a disenfranchised community in East St. Louis seceding after the 2000 presidential election, they are completely up to the task.
Only time will tell how either of these ideas will actually manifest in reality, but so far it seems that only one will be given the effort and energy required to produce greatness. The other is just a bad idea. And by now, every American should understand that the only way to fix a bad idea is to come up with a better one.
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