On Black Twitter, the amorphous digital precinct that has become a primary incubator for internet culture, the excitement surrounding Amazon Studios’ announcement Tuesday—that The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and producer Will Packer are developing an alternate-history drama series for the company’s streaming platform—carried with it feelings of pride and savor.
Whether imagined on television or in darkened theaters, alt-histories are, on average, built with a dystopian premise at the center. But McGruder and Packer have fused their series, deftly titled Black America, with paradise in mind: according to Deadline, former slaves have acquired Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as restitution—collectively designated New Colonia—“and with that land, the freedom to shape their own destiny.”
The news of those creators, and that conceit, came as a kernel of redress. Days earlier, HBO had announced that Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff would oversee a new project for the lauded network: a sci-fi drama in which the South has seceded from the Union and slavery prevails across the land. It would be titled Confederate. A mix of fury and shock greeted the press statement; many believed it would amount to little more than white creatives penning slavery fanfic. The question of who tells the story of another person’s pain—and of slavery in particular—not only persists, but has become increasingly consequential.
The question of who tells the story of another person’s pain—and of slavery in particular—not only persists, but has become increasingly consequential.
For decades, the pageantry of black suffering has endured with curious and voyeuristic obsession in the public square, in part becoming something of a cottage industry for white creators. The cartoonish, fabricated antipathies of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 slave epic The Birth of a Nation were echoed in ostensibly even-handed interpretations such as Edward Zwick’s Glory and fantastical renderings including Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. (Art, Zadie Smith writes, has “never been politically or historically neutral.”)
Nor is the conversation around the dueling alt-history series the only contemporary focal point through which the matter of black suffering has been considered: Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit, about the 1967 riots that antagonized the Motor City, has been scrutinized for being “grotesque and even a bit exploitative” in its refusal to grant depth to its black characters, and instead reveling in the violence inflicted upon them. (Bigelow, with a thin air of awareness, conceded: “I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No.’ However, I’m able to tell this story.”) Perhaps an even more telling reflection of what’s at play is the overwhelming divide among reviewers: White critics have been much more generous in their analysis of the movie.
We live in a world where black suffering abounds and is parroted with disheartening ease across TV screens and social feeds. “If we already understand that slavery was terrible,” Brit Bennett wrote in the New Republic, “why must we keep experiencing stories about slavery’s horrors?” Perhaps a past should be just that—a time before, an experience not to be lived again.
As the backlash to Confederate grew louder—the hashtag #NoConfederate has been the center of a contentious online boycott—Weiss, Benioff, and the show’s two black writer-executive producers, Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, clarified their intentions in an interview with Vulture. “We knew that we could do something easy,” Weiss said, convinced that it would be much more worthwhile “to attempt something difficult” and “challenging.” “The idea that this would be pornography goes back to people imagining whips and plantations,” Spellman added. “What they need to be imagining is how fucked up things are today, and a story that allows us to now dramatize it in a more tangible matter.”
A year ago, I spoke with Colson Whitehead on the occasion of The Underground Railroad, his Pulitzer Prize-winning surrealist novel that follows a teenage slave as she travels out of bondage by way of a literal subterranean train that travels north. Whitehead has published eight books to wide praise and throughout has been careful to paint black characters as more than unsophisticated farce or cut-and-paste platitudes. The Underground Railroad, Whitehead said then, perverts “time and different historical episodes” to “hopefully tell a different story of America than the one it tells itself.” Despite the book’s reliance on historical ephemera—the Tuskegee syphilis experiments play a role, as do the profusion of racially inflamed lynchings that were common in southern states—he maintained that at its essence it was speculative fiction, a patchwork American past with dystopian flourishes.
That conversation stuck with me long afterward—and in March, when Amazon Studios greenlit a serialized adaptation of the allegorical novel with Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), I thought back to it, particularly this nugget: “How can we reconcile our ideas about America as an elevated nation with the true facts about our national biography?”
At heart and to varying degrees, I believe that Black America and Confederate will both attempt to answer Whitehead’s question, reckoning with the past in present tense. A swell of slave dramas have flared up in the past half decade: WGN’s Underground, History’s Roots reboot; AMC’s Hell on Wheels, CBC’s The Book of Negroes; Nate Parker’s controversial Birth of a Nation; Steve McQueen’s masterful but wholly horrifying 12 Years a Slave. Each project grounded itself squarely within the Antebellum South, and all are linked by a standpoint that chooses not to manipulate the compass of history so much as to excavate—some more empathetically and successfully than others—black suffering.
But what happens when you look past the pain? In Confederate’s case, the affliction of an indentured and powerless people is a natural, inevitable outcome in a land overrun by white, racist decree. Interestingly, Packer told Deadline, Black America will offer a more contemporary proposition born from the belly of a post-Civil War world. “What if reparations were given?” he asked “What would this country and that alternate country look like today. How would Americans look?” Or, put another way: There is a possibility for utopia.