If the controversy surrounding HBO’s “Confederate” was already a bonfire, Amazon Studios just threw gasoline on it. Deadline is reporting that for several months, the platform has been developing its own alternate history series, entitled “Black America,” with producers Will Packer and Aaron McGruder.
Deadline describes the series as follows:
[‘Black America’] envisions an alternate history where newly freed African Americans have secured the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama post-Reconstruction as reparations for slavery, and with that land, the freedom to shape their own destiny. 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.
It’s a far cry from “Confederate,” the announced drama being developed for HBO by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Nichelle Tramble Spellman, and Malcolm Spellman. In the HBO series, the South won the Civil War, and the series thus aims to tackle such questions as “what would slavery look like as a modern-day institution?”
“Black America” is not yet greenlit, but the announcement of “Confederate” inspired the team to reveal its premise. Packer told Deadline that “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.”
McGruder is someone who, in his work, has expressed an unflinching take on race relations in America. The creator of “The Boondocks” often invited controversy with both his syndicated comic strip and Adult Swim series (which in 2010 was named one of the most controversial cartoons ever by Time Magazine), but offered up a singular point-of-view on a wide variety of controversial issues, adding a fresh voice to the conversation surrounding not just race relations, but many fundamental topics concerning us today as a nation.
It also stands in sharp contrast to “Game of Thrones” showrunners Benioff and Weiss’s problematic history with regard to depictions of people of color within the fantasy world of Westeros. While they’re not the sole producers, it’s a legacy they can’t escape, despite what HBO might hope. During the TCA summer press tour, HBO president Casey Bloys urged critics (professional and otherwise) to wait and see when it comes to “Confederate,” telling reporters that “we have a long history of betting on our talent, and we hope that people will judge the actual material. We will rise and fall on the strength of that material… All we can do is ask people to judge the final product — not what it could be or might be.”
But what “Black America” speaks to is one of the most fundamental complaints about “Confederate,” as well as critiques that have come up whenever a new film or TV show invests heavily in the topic of slavery, even excellent series like WGN America’s “Underground.” In the words of activist April Reign, “The commodification of black pain for the enjoyment of others must stop.”
While narratives about the awful tragedies experienced by African-Americans are hugely valuable, and those stories should never be ignored, there’s been an outcry for more shows like “Insecure” and “Atlanta,” which feature black voices discussing black issues, but go beyond the most horrific aspects of our history to actually explore human experiences.
“Black America” might be dealing with the legacy of slavery, but the premise as described indicates that the show has many big ideas at its core, while also imagining a very different world from our own.
As Reign pointed out on Twitter during this weekend’s #NoConfederate protest:
— April (@ReignOfApril) July 31, 2017
“Black America,” in contrast, promises to show audiences what a real alternate history looks like.