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HBO and Amazon’s dueling Civil War alt-history dramas have brought an age-old debate about art back to the cultural forefront: Who is “allowed” to tell certain stories, particularly those about marginalized communities? The question is prompting frank conversations among those in the TV industry.
“It’s all fair in love and television writing,” says Master of None actor-writer Lena Waithe, “as long as it’s good, not exploitative and not ill-intentioned.”
The current conversation was sparked by HBO’s July?19 announcement that its most successful showrunners, Game of Thrones‘ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, would make Confederate, a drama that imagines a modern-day Confederacy with an intact slavery industry. Two weeks later, Amazon revealed the details of Black America, its long-in-the-works drama with producer Will Packer and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder.
It’s another contemporary-set drama that imagines a fictional nation 160 years after the Civil War, but with a different point of speculation: What if the formerly enslaved received reparations, in the form of their own sovereign state?
Whereas HBO’s show has been besieged by a #NoConfederate campaign that continues to?trend during Game of Thrones broadcasts, Black America hasn’t felt such heat. But it would be a mistake to attribute the disparity to the racial makeup of the creative teams (Benioff and Weiss will serve as executive producers alongside Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who are black), says Packer, who notes that the original germ of his project’s premise originated with Amazon content head Roy Price, who is white.
“It’s not about whether somebody of a particular ethnicity can tell a story,” Packer says. “Should you tell it? As a black filmmaker, I feel a responsibility to put forth images that counteract those that have historically been put forth, that there have been a dearth of, that are aspirational.”
Other working TV creators are similarly measured in their take, especially after criticisms of white director Kathryn Bigelow’s police brutality film Detroit.
“I don’t think there should be a litmus test,” says John Ridley, pointing to Norman Jewison’s “powerful stories about race and identity” in such films as In the Heat of the Night. “If I have a problem with the guys who are telling the story of Confederate, then it’s going to be easy for somebody else to say, ‘Well, John, we’re doing this story about a Hispanic family in Texas, and we don’t see why you should be a part of that, thank you very much.'”
On the other hand, the American Crime showrunner notes that the chance to write outside of one’s experience rarely swings the other way. “The issue is that traditionally disenfranchised writers don’t get the call to do space operas, suburban stories, something about Wall Street,” he says. “I’d have less of an issue with Confederate if we saw women, people of color or other orientations having shot after shot at shows on HBO or Showtime. Where are those opportunities?”
For these talents, the reality of industry context is key. “I can understand when you have films like Straight Outta Compton or Hidden Figures [which were penned by white writers], people say, ‘Where are the black writers?'” says Glen Mazzara, who next will showrun MRC’s The Dark Tower adaptation. “I would rather the story still be told, and what we need to do is continue telling these stories while getting young writers in the pipeline and investing in them so they can gain experience and the trust of the studios to move up and eventually create their own shows.”
That investment in minority writers is vital to diversifying Hollywood’s pipeline in a meaningful way. “I get it — there are more white straight guys who are showrunners and have these opportunities,” says Waithe. “It’s OK to say, ‘I want to tell this story about this black person living in Chicago,’ but they need to embrace a black writer who lives in Chicago and work with them. When you don’t involve us in the process, you’re using our bodies for profit.”
The key is partnership, agrees Mazzara. “The only way we’re going to honestly examine the complex issues of race and gender is by listening to and challenging each other,” he says, adding that these subjects of identity should not be considered niche interests. “It’s unfair to expect every non-white, non-male writer to carry the burden of writing diverse stories and characters, and giving white men a pass.”
Bryn Elise Sandberg contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.