Creating alternate-history entertainment can be incredibly fraught, especially when the subject matter is rooted in American slavery and the outcome of the Civil War.
That became abundantly clear last week with the backlash to HBO’s announcement that the next project from “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would be “Confederate,” a show following an alternate timeline in which the South successfully seceded, became a nation where slavery is legal and “evolved into a modern institution.” Critics were especially uncomfortable that such a story line would come from the men behind TV’s “Game of Thrones,” a show that’s long been under scrutiny for depictions of sexual violence and its lack of people of color.
But on Tuesday, word broke that another alternative-history TV drama will be set in a world where the aftermath of the Civil War played out differently: “Black America,” set in a contemporary society, envisions a timeline in which freed black Americans formed a sovereign nation out of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as post-Reconstruction reparations for slavery.
Deadline first reported details of the series, and a spokesman for Amazon Studios said no additional details were available at this time.
The Amazon Studios project from Will Packer (who just produced the box-office hit “Girls Trip”) and Aaron McGruder (“The Boondocks” creator) has been in the works for more than a year now and remains in development. In February, Deadline provided a bare-bones description, writing simply that the untitled project from the two men “revolve around an alternate universe in the vein of ‘The Man in the High Castle’” — a show, also from Amazon Studios, that imagines how things would have turned out had the Allied powers lost World War II. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Then came the botched HBO roll-out of “Confederate.” HBO’s programming president Casey Bloys later said the company made a “mistake” in announcing “an idea so sensitive and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a news release.” The company dispatched the showrunners, who are white, as well as executive producers/writers Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who are black, to conduct interviews to “explain why they wanted to tell this story.”
Activists and cultural critics remained unconvinced. A social media campaign during Sunday’s “Game of Thrones” got the #NoConfederate hashtag (from #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign) trending on Twitter. In the New York Times, Roxane Gay wrote, “I don’t want to watch slavery fan fiction.” HBO responded to the controversy in a statement Sunday, saying “the project is currently in its infancy so we hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see.”
HBO’s announcement prompted the team behind “Black America” to divulge their project’s name and premise, Deadline reported. “It 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 the outlet. He added that Amazon Studios approached him more than a year ago about the idea.
“I was immediately enthralled by the idea; I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what a provocative and bold piece of content it could be,” said Packer. He then asked McGruder to come on board, and together they “talked about what a huge opportunity and responsibility it would be.”
Packer said the idea is “personally intriguing for me as a black American,” and “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,” Packer continued, “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.”
Deadline provides more details on the show’s content:
The sovereign nation they formed, New Colonia, has had a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with its looming “Big Neighbor,” both ally and foe, the United States. The past 150 years have been witness to military incursions, assassinations, regime change, coups, etc. Today, after two decades of peace with the U.S. and unprecedented growth, an ascendant New Colonia joins the ranks of major industrialized nations on the world stage as America slides into rapid decline. Inexorably tied together, the fate of two nations, indivisible, hangs in the balance.
The announcement of “Black America,” helmed by two black men, quickly drew praise from the same corners of the Internet that decried “Confederate.”
— April (@ReignOfApril) August 1, 2017
See how alt-history is handled by Black creatives? https://t.co/OuPgu9hnA7
— ReBecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) August 1, 2017
I got chills reading this. And it’s Will Packer & Aaron McGruder GAHTDAMMIT https://t.co/dEGHTBUhXn
— @PiaGlenn (@PiaGlenn) August 1, 2017
Packer declined to comment directly on the HBO show since it hasn’t been made yet. 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.”
And then retweeted this:
i’d love it if articles wouldn’t make it seem like ‘Black America’ was created as a response to ‘Confederate’. it’s BEEN in the works.
— yawn solo (@ethiopianboy) August 1, 2017