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Not a line has been written, no characters have been cast, and there's not even a plot summary. But HBO is in the middle of a big controversy over a new TV series called "Confederate." It's about a world where the South didn't lose the Civil War. Critics say it's offensive. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talked to the African-American husband and wife producing team who are fighting for the idea.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Nichelle Tramble Spellman says it's been like a crash course in crazy. Last week, HBO announced plans to develop "Confederate," a drama set in an alternate reality where slavery is part of contemporary American society. Critics denounced the idea as insensitive and exploitive. One reason - the producers touted by HBO as creators and showrunners were David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
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DEGGANS: Weiss and Benioff are executive producers of HBO's most popular drama series, "Game Of Thrones." They're also white. And "Game Of Thrones" has been criticized for years over its lack of ethnic diversity and depictions of sexualized violence. But Nichelle Tramble Spellman and her husband Malcolm Spellman, two African-American writers, are also executive producers on the project. Nichelle said she felt marginalized by people ready to assume the worst.
NICHELLE TRAMBLE SPELLMAN: We knew that there would be a reaction to the material. But the press release was vague, so everybody ran with the worst parts of their imagination to figure out what it was the four of us were doing. So I was kind of surprised by how much the misinformation traveled and how far it got.
DEGGANS: The Spellmans, who have worked on shows like "Empire" and "The Good Wife," insist they're equal partners in developing the show with Weiss and Benioff. And although they haven't written an outline yet, Malcolm Spellman is clear on what the show is not.
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.
DEGGANS: Malcolm Spellman says the situation in their American South will be comparable to apartheid-era South Africa. What they hope to show is how slavery is directly connected to racial issues we struggle with now from police brutality and mass incarceration in communities of color to suppression of voting rights.
HBO has pushed back against the backlash, arranging interviews with the Spellmans to show there are black producers involved. But the initial news release for the show emphasized Weiss and Benioff's role, apparently to let "Game Of Thrones" fans know what the pair would do when that series ends next year. So if HBO can't get the announcement right, can they be trusted to get the show right? I asked HBO programming president Casey Bloys. His response? Give us a chance.
CASEY BLOYS: All we can ask is give these artists the chance to have their work evaluated. And all of us, the executive producers and HBO, will rise or fall on the quality of the work.
DEGGANS: The Spellmans say they will consult historians and experts to ground their fiction in known facts. I asked, is it possible that despite their best efforts they might create a show that white supremacists would see as validation for their beliefs in the way some bigots in the 1970s saw Archie Bunker as a hero instead of a buffoon on "All In The Family"?
M. SPELLMAN: We are black. We are not going to create that reality. We're not doing that show. We wouldn't do that show.
DEGGANS: As a critic, I never want to judge a show before I see it. But I do hope this controversy serves as a wake-up call for TV executives who still sometimes overlook how delicate these issues can be. I'm Eric Deggans.
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