Don’t join the rush to condemn ‘Game of Thrones’ team behind HBO’s ‘Confederate’

Jesse Washington, The Undefeated | 7/22/2017, 10:13 a.m.
Whiteness does not prevent wokeness.
Showrunners David Benioff (L) and D. B. Weiss attend HBO’s Official 2015 Emmy After Party at The Plaza at the Pacific Design Center on September 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

There are as many reasons to worry about the next project from the Game of Thrones showrunners — an HBO series called Confederate, about an America where slavery still exists — as Queen Cersei has reasons to worry about her head staying attached to her neck.

But let’s give David Benioff and D.B. Weiss a chance. Whiteness does not prevent wokeness. And fiction can be more penetrating than fact, particularly in this era when too many people argue that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.

On Wednesday, HBO announced the forthcoming drama, written and executive produced by Benioff and Weiss, who turned the Thrones fantasy novels into a global phenomenon. Confederate is set in an alternate reality where the South won the Civil War. “Slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution,” HBO said in a statement. “The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone  —  freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”

The biggest reason to worry about Confederate is Game of Thrones’ troublesome relationship with race.

Benioff and Weiss’ show is almost devoid of blackness. Only two minor characters had African features, and they’re both long gone. Two current minor characters appear biracial: Grey Worm, who has no testicles, and Missandei, an ex-slave doomed to love Grey Worm when she’s not busy as Daenerys’ servant. The brown-skinned Dothraki are a stereotypical savage horde, reveling in public sex and the consumption of raw animal organs — and they worshipped fair Daenerys, of course. Overall, Thrones is so Eurocentric, even a dude named Shagga is white.

Such whiteness is somewhat to be expected, given that George R.R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire books that are the basis of Game of Thrones, says his world of Westeros is a fantasy analogue of the British Isles. “There weren’t many Asians in Yorkish England either,” Martin told a mournful fan in 2014. And Thrones delivers equal-opportunity barbarism, with white characters perpetrating an enormous variety of depraved and disturbing crimes.

But still. Dragons are born of a human mother in Game of Thrones. People return from the dead. Undead ice-fiends are marching south. But we can’t get a brother up in King’s Landing? C’mon, y’all.

Folks on Twitter predictably trashed the Confederate press release, questioning whether white writers could be trusted with such a deeply black story. In a more nuanced critique, David Perry, a writer and professor of history at Dominican University in suburban Chicago, expressed concern over Thrones’ treatment not only of race but of sexual violence as well.

“The showrunners have been defensive when engaged on these issues,” Perry, a Thrones fan, said by email. “Their decisions have been troubling here, and we’re only dealing with a medievalish fantasy world. … I am skeptical that they have the listening skills and humility to adeptly handle the even more tense subject matter of American slavery.