Confederate and Black America: why clashes at Charlottesville show Civil War alt-histories are more than just fantasy

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Jenny Barrett, Edge Hill University

The clash between far right protesters and anti-fascist counter-groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a statue of Confederate general, Robert E Lee, is the latest incident to reflect ongoing tension in American race relations. From the Black Lives Matter campaign that emerged after repeated police shootings of black people to the ongoing battles over the continued reverence of notable southern Civil War figures, such events show the legacy of slavery is still very much a live issue in modern America.

It is within this current political atmosphere that the reaction to the announcement of two seemingly rival alt-history shows must be seen. In July, HBO approved the production of Confederate, an original series by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D B Weiss in which the American Civil War leads not to peace and unity, but to stalemate and the secession of the southern states.

Fast forward to an alternate present, and slavery has evolved into a modern institution in the south and a Third Civil War looms (a second civil war having also taken place). The ensuing outpouring of criticism then seemingly forced Amazon to announce early that they were also working on an alt-history show called Black America, another that imagines a racially-divided America coming out of the Civil War. But this time it will instead tell the story of free African-Americans who form their own sovereign nation, New Colonia.

In the present, New Colonia prospers while the US declines. To be produced by Will Packer (Straight Outta Compton) and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks), the show will consider an America where reparations for slavery could have been paid.

The history of film has many examples of similar stories competing at the same time at the box office, but the timing of these two seemingly opposing narratives as America still battles over simmering issues as seen at Charlottesville is especially poignant. Comparisons between the two proposed shows were made immediately. Black America drew support from the likes of #NoConfederate campaign founder, April Reign, while Vanity Fair called it the “anti-Confederate”.

Black America producer, Will Packer, left. Shutterstock

For many the idea of Confederate cuts too close to the bone. Packer summed this up when he told Deadline that on a personal level “the fact that there is the contemplation of contemporary slavery makes it something that I would not be a part of producing nor consuming … Slavery is far too real and far too painful, and we still see the manifestations of it today as a country for me to ever view that as a form of entertainment.”

The fear that the show could exploit the history of black oppression that many argue did not end with the emancipation of African slaves in the 19th century led to calls for a boycott, with #NoConfederate going viral on Twitter.

But while the public take sides, we’ve yet to know how either show will pan out – they haven’t yet been written. Indeed, the television network drew attention to two other members of the writing and production team, African Americans Nichelle Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire), and promise that the show would not be “Gone With the Wind 2017.”

Alt-history: why the controversy?

Alt-history has been a popular literary genre for decades, and is currently enjoying something of a boom, thanks to Amazon’s recent adaptation of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Two of the most common alt-history themes are – no surprise – the Axis powers winning World War II (or indeed plotting their return) and the Confederacy winning the Civil War or seceding from the Union, such as MacKinlay Kantor’s influential early alt-history, If the South Had Won the Civil War and even a mockumentary film, CSA. These counter-histories each depend on the reader or viewer knowing the “real” history before it was re-written, to appreciate the difference between “what was” and “what if”. Herein may lie the problem.

SS-GB: a Nazified London. Sid Gentle Films Ltd/Screen Grab

The emergence of previously “unheard” histories from the mid-20th century onwards, such as Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which exposed the horrific treatment of Native Americans, means that there is no longer a single, objective history that can be called “the truth”. Instead there are many histories seen from different perspectives. However, not all of these histories will be heard, meaning that certain dominant views of the past may stubbornly remain or may fail to recognise how it might offend others. As a consequence, we may “know”, for example, that slavery in America came to an end in the 1860s, and strictly speaking that is true. But perspectives on this topic differ – plenty of Americans see slavery as a story that has not ended.

“What if” history may offer a space for silenced voices to write counter-histories, and Black America promises to tell a story where slavery comes to an end and black liberation and prosperity are real. However, alt-history also assumes that we already know and are agreed on what the real history was. In this understanding, history is fixed, which enables the writer to conceive of a history that is different or opposite to the one that is undisputedly fact. And if the known history is disputed, its fictional alternative may be also.

The reason that a show like The Man in the High Castle hasn’t attracted such controversy is that it is not so obviously rooted in disputed histories. The Nazis lost. The Holocaust happened. Holocaust denial flounders in the face of undeniable evidence. But from the perspective of the #NoConfederate campaign, HBO is rubber-stamping a history which regards slavery as a thing of the past. Just as the campaigners have made assumptions about the content of an as-yet-unwritten TV show, Benioff and Weiss have made an assumption about perceptions of American history.

The ConversationFor more than 8m black Americans, slavery is the root of a current reality of inequality and oppression. HBO and Amazon lending their name to a version of history – whether factual or counter-factual – is an inherent endorsement of its content, assumed or otherwise.

Jenny Barrett, Reader in Film and Popular Culture, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cannes gets an added dose of drama as Netflix makes its festival debut

Roger Shannon, Edge Hill University

The red carpet has been rolled out and the stars are taking their photo calls as the aristocracy of the film industry gathers at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes for the 70th annual film festival. From Afghanistan to Zambia, film makers, buyers, screenwriters, distributors, critics, academics and cineastes bunker down together for 12 days of communal cinematic consumption in dark rooms interspersed with heady business and critical discussion in the glare of the Mediterranean sunlight. The Conversation

Opening the 2017 Festival is French director Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts, which is screening out of competition and kicks off a line up that includes 49 films from 29 countries, 12 of them by female directors.

The festival groups its selection (invited from more than 1,000 submitted films) into a number of strands: “the Competition”; “Un Certain Regard”; “Director’s Fortnight” and “Critic’s Week” all of which have their own programme of films. Complementing these strands are special events such as “Midnight Screenings”, “Cannes at 70” screenings, “Cannes Classics” and “Out of Competition” screenings – including, this year, a new thriller from Roman Polanski.

Thierry Frémaux, the Festival’s artistic director, is in charge of selection – and this year his choice is characterised by a lower number of Hollywood films than usual. He has also gone for a more pronounced political tone in the films, on themes such as migration, sex trafficking and the refugee crisis. Another feature of this year’s selection is the screening of films financed by media streaming platforms, including Netflix and Amazon, and the inclusion of “cinematic” television dramas.

Strong competition

The competition films compete for the festival’s Palme d’Or, its most prestigious award – which was won last year by Ken Loach for I, Daniel Blake. This strand includes a number of Cannes regulars – directors such as Michael Haneke, Lynne Ramsay and Sofia Coppola in a programme of 19 films from more than a dozen countries.

Haneke’s 12th film, Happy End, brings together French actor Isabelle Huppert with the UK’s Toby Jones in a story set in Calais which explores the ongoing refugee crisis and a family’s moral blindness to suffering on its doorstep. Haneke, who is from Austria, has already been awarded the Palm d’Or twice before for The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012).

Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, who was last at the festival in 2011 with her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, will present You Were Never Really Here – which was jointly developed by the UK’s Film4 and BFI and features US star Joaquin Phoenix in a thriller set within the world of sex trafficking.

Meanwhile, another festival favourite, Sofia Coppola, is in Cannes with her updated version of the 1971 Clint Eastwood classic The Beguiled, which stars Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell.

New players

The inclusion in the competition strand of two Netflix-funded films caused a heated controversy in the days before Cannes – which will doubtless continue throughout the festival. Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja by the Korean director Bong Joon-ho are both Netflix original productions, and represent titles that will air on the media streaming platform before being seen in commercial film theatres – if at all.

There were rumours that these two Palme d’Or contenders (and possibly also those funded by Amazon Studios) would be deselected and not screened at Cannes. This was due to pressure from French exhibitors who are concerned that Netflix-backed films may not be released for screening in French cinemas. However, the festival’s organisers have confirmed that the Netflix titles will indeed be screened – but that the festival rules will be changed for 2018 so that all films in competition will have to be guaranteed a French theatrical release and not reserved for subscribers to Netflix or Amazon.

In coming to this decision, Cannes has opted to welcome new funders of cinema such as Netflix, while at the same time reaffirming its commitment to the traditional mode of theatrical exhibition of film in France and beyond.

In future, any film wishing to compete in competition at Cannes will have to commit itself to being distributed in French cinemas. As Netflix and Amazon (and other new players in this field) continue to disrupt traditional business models for the financing, production and consumption of film, it will be a challenge for international film festivals (such as Berlin, Venice, London and Sundance) to respond in positive ways to accommodate these new production models.

Small screen, big impact

Rival events in the environment of the film and television industry (for example, a proposed Cannes TV Festival in 2018 and more tolerant selection criteria at other international Film Festivals, such as at SxSW in the US) have prompted the Cannes Film Festival to sever its stone wall resistance to television drama series.

With the admission of Twin Peaks and Top of the Lake into its 2017 programme, Cannes’ hitherto unbreachable “no TV series” rule has been broken. To some die-hard cinephiles, this is akin to having the TV barbarians not just at your door – but ransacking your living room. It’s the first time that television in an episodic form has been invited to Cannes – and it marks a significant step in a new direction.

Twin Peaks was originally produced in 1990 and 1991 for ABC television and was followed by a feature film in 1992. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – which David Lynch devised as a prequel to the television series – was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992 and was loudly booed. Top of the Lake aired on BBC in 2013 to great acclaim.

Both television series come from auteurs (David Lynch, Jane Campion) whose cinematic credentials as past winners of the Palme d’Or at Cannes (Wild At Heart; The Piano) are watertight – and in that regard it makes the Cannes decision more palatable than it might have been. Because it’s now very clear that, for all that Cannes is revered as a movie festival, the TV and streaming genies are now out of the bottle and on show.

Roger Shannon, Professor of Film and Television & Director, Institute for Creative Enterprise (ICE), Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.