NOEL KING, HOST:
Imagine this - a TV show that sparks intense controversy, dozens of opinion pieces and tweets and radio segments without ever having aired, without even a single episode being written yet. That's what happened when HBO announced "Game Of Thrones" creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's next TV project. It's called "Confederate." And the premise is a United States in which the South didn't lose the Civil War, where slavery still exists. This made a lot of people angry.
Benioff and Weiss, who are white, have defended the project, saying the goal of the show is to highlight issues of today, like police brutality and voter disenfranchisement. The show's also been defended by two executive producers - Nichelle Tramble Spellman and her husband, Malcolm Spellman. They are African-American. Our TV critic Eric Deggans caught up with them this week and asked them about their vision for the show.
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MALCOLM SPELLMAN: The project is not antebellum imagery. It's not whips. It's not plantations. It's not a celebration or pornography for slavery. And most importantly, it's not an entire nation of slaves.
KING: We wanted to talk to someone who's been down this road before, so we called up mystery writer Ben Winters. He wrote the 2016 book "Underground Airlines," which imagines a United States that never had a Civil War, where slavery is still legal in four U.S. states. Ben, thanks for coming on.
BEN WINTERS: Sure. How you doing?
KING: Good, thanks. Ben, I'm just going to get this out of the way real quick. You are white, correct?
WINTERS: That is right.
KING: All right. And you took on the premise of modern-day slavery in your book. Slavery is a deeply sensitive topic, a hurtful topic. Why write a book, even fiction, about a world where black Americans are still enslaved?
WINTERS: Well, because, you know, in our contemporary society, we are still very much living with the institutions and attitudes that were formed in this country during the time of slavery. When you look at incidents of police brutality in black communities, when you look at incarceration rates, when you look at housing discrimination and banking discrimination and everyday discrimination that African-Americans face in this country, all those things are tied up with the long, brutal legacy of slavery. So when I conceived of my book "Underground Airlines," it was very much as a way of thinking about that, a way of using fiction as a means to criticize and analyze and empathize.
KING: When we talk about empathy, I think it brings up big questions about voice, right? The narrator of your book is Victor. He's a black man, a very conflicted person who works as a slave catcher. He tracks down runaway slaves. Victor, himself, is a former slave. When you were writing the book, when you were thinking about the book, did you wrestle with the question of who gets to write in whose voice?
WINTERS: Oh, yeah, I mean, of course. It would be insane not to, not to be aware of that and not to think about that. And the thing is that there is a long and ugly history in this country of white artists representing African-American voices and African-American characters in ways that are stereotypical or sort of coarse or, you know, merely exploitative.
You know, so it was definitely very much my intention when I set out to write the book, and as I worked on the book, to not be one of those books, you know, to be thoughtful and to do my homework, do my research and to make the character not sort of some stereotypical, narrow-minded view of what a black person is like but rather a human exploration of who this specific person is like in this specific world.
KING: What did you think when you saw "Confederate" get this massive pushback without having aired yet, without having been written yet? Were you surprised?
WINTERS: I wasn't surprised. And I don't think that HBO should have been surprised. Like I was saying before, Noel, like, there is this extraordinary history in this country of white artists representing the black experience in ways that have been painful. And so when my book came out, it was greeted with skepticism and wariness on the part of potential readers. Which, you know, of course, my initial reaction was to sort of get my back up and say, well, you know, well, how dare you? You know, I did all this research. I did all this work. My book is respectful. My book is smart.
But then, you know, you have to go, well, yeah, but there's every reason for people to be cautious and skeptical and wary of work like this. So, you know, I can't speak for their show. I don't know what it's going to be. I don't know exactly what they're doing. But I certainly am not surprised that people said, well, now, wait a second. What's going on here? You know, it is, unfortunately - based on the past, it is a valid response.
KING: I mean, there have been a lot of think pieces written about this show before it has aired. One of them by the author and culture critic Roxane Gay appeared in The New York Times. She mentions your book. She says you have, quote, "an interesting premise." But then she asks, at what cost? Another piece, meanwhile, in The Hollywood Reporter, says "Confederate" could potentially muddle a history that many Americans already don't agree on. Is there - in the larger historical sense - is there a cost here?
WINTERS: Let me stress, again, that I can't defend or explain what this show is because I am not involved with it, and I don't know anything about what their intentions are or what they're doing.
KING: Fair enough.
WINTERS: But I can speak about myself...
WINTERS: ...And my own intentions.
WINTERS: Of course, there is no general American consensus on where we are as a country in terms of the treatment of African-Americans by the greater population and sort of where we've come to in terms of race relations in this country. But I think that it is crucial that artists and authors remain engaged with the questions. And I also think there are a lot of people who don't think about it enough.
You know, part of the pleasure or the sort of retrospective satisfaction of writing a book like this is the idea that there are people in book clubs all around the country, you know, who are picking up my book because it looks interesting because oh, it - a thriller with a high-concept twist. That should be a cool one. And then they end up having a conversation about systemic discrimination and, you know, about the roots of the mass incarceration that we have today. We have a responsibility, as artists, to be part of the cultural conversation, to be part of the political conversation.
KING: That was Ben Winters, author of the book "Underground Airlines." Ben, thanks so much for coming on.
WINTERS: Sure, Noel. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF OJR'S "RUNNIN FROM THE LAW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.