Shortly after Inglorious Bastards—Quentin Tarantino’s alternate history of World War II—debuted in 2009, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb found himself in Moscow. There, a Russian friend asked what he’d thought of the film, and Cobb replied that he “loved the way the director created an alternate history in order to make a larger point about the universal nature of heroism,” according to one of Cobb’s articles.
But his friend did not share this view.
“My friend and, as I later learned, lots of other Russians took issue with the film for precisely that reason,” Cobb wrote. Because many Russians feel the United States still doesn’t recognize their World War II contributions, they saw the movie as an “attempt to further whitewash their role in Hitler’s demise. The alternate history in Inglourious Basterds failed there because the actual history had yet to be reconciled.”
Cobb—a journalism professor at Columbia University and a former history professor at the University of Connecticut—recounted this tale at the beginning of his New Yorker review of Django Unchained, Tarantino’s 2012 alternate history of American slavery, as a way of explaining why he took issue with the film.
But the story also helps explain some of the concerns that critics have raised about HBO’s forthcoming show Confederate, which involves a modern-day Confederacy where slavery is legal. In this fictional world, the southern states successfully secede from the rest of the nation. The show will chronicle the events leading up to what an HBO press release called the “Third American Civil War.”
Believing the history of American slavery is already misunderstood, some writers and activists worry that such an alternate history—told through the lens of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the two white showrunners who helm Game of Thrones—runs the risk of perpetuating misinformation about the realities of slavery and what the Civil War was really about. On Sunday, the #NoConfederate Twitter campaign voiced some of these concerns about the show.
When asked for comment via email, an HBO representative replied with a statement: “We have great respect for the dialogue and concern being expressed around ‘Confederate.’ We have faith that [writers] Nichelle [Tramble Spellman], Dan [Weiss], David [Benioff] and Malcolm [Spellman] will approach the subject with care and sensitivity. The project is currently in its infancy so we hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see.”
Among the voices critical of the premise are historians who question whether Benioff and Weiss have a good enough understanding of the period’s history to create an “alternate” one. In a recent Vulture interview, Benioff recalled reading in a book by historian Shelby Foote how one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s attempts to gain Northern territory were spoiled when a report was intercepted by the Union. He pointed to it as a source of his interest in creating the show.
“A lot of people think if the orders hadn’t been lost, things might have been different: The Confederates might’ve sacked Washington, D.C., it’s possible the South could’ve won the war,” he said. “So that notion of, what would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked D.C., if the South had won—that just always fascinated me.”
Benioff’s reference to Foote, a white historian who, as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted, once said he “would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar,” triggered alarm bells with historians on Twitter. Military historian Chris Levesque tweeted that the reference “implies a very shallow understanding of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and what came after.” David M. Perry, a former history professor and current writer about history-related topics, tweeted that “as a historian, I’m very concerned with Benioff’s reference to the Shelby Foote books, which I read as steeped in Lost Cause-ism.” And Civil War historian Kevin M. Levin sarcastically quipped, “David Benioff’s understanding of the Civil War can be traced to reading Shelby Foote. Nothing to worry about here.”
White authors’ reimaginings of Confederate victory or a world in which the Civil War never happened are hardly new. These stories can be found in the 11 Southern Victory novels, the alternate history-book-like If the South Had Won the Civil War, the Captain Confederacy comic books, and last year’s novel Underground Airlines (which caused a controversy similar to Confederate). Black writers too have tackled slavery with speculative fiction like Octavia Butler’s Kindred and historical dramas like Misa Green’s Underground, but these works tend not to focus on the “what if” conceit of Confederate victory.
Over at The New York Times, writer and professor Roxane Gay addressed the tensions inherent in historical fiction whose writers may not recognize the continuities between the Civil War era and today. “It is curious that time and again, when people create alternate histories, they are largely replicating a history we already know, and intimately,” she wrote. “They are replicating histories where whiteness thrives and people of color remain oppressed.”