Malcolm Spellman and his wife, Nichelle Tramble Spellman, are the African-American writers who are working on the controversial slavery alternate history HBO drama, Confederate.
The show’s storyline – it features a modern America with the Confederacy winning the Civil War – has sparked intense protest because it showcases a country in which slavery still exists and the South successfully seceded from the union. Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss conceived the idea for the show and are also involved in the writing.
Vulture calls it “a sci-fi tinged, alternative-history.” Critics have said the prospect of two white men – Benioff and Weiss – being behind a program that focuses on a world in which slavery was not eradicated in America is insensitive and causes pain.
HBO has defended the program, as have the four writers.
“These four writers are at the top of their game,” HBO’s President of Programming David Bloys said. “The bet for us is on our talent in Michelle, Malcolm, Dan and David — they’re behind it. We have a long history of HBO of betting on our talent.”
According to NPR, “Nichelle Tramble Spellman and her husband, Malcolm Spellman” are “African American writers who are also executive producers on Confederate.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Malcolm Spellman Has Argued That Critics Have ‘Marginalized’ Both Him & His Wife
The Spellmans have defended their role in the controversial show. “Regardless of how awkwardly that press release was phrased, we are involved as peers, as full executive producers and as partners,” Malcolm Spellman told NPR. “If you render us a footnote, the assumption is that we’re just a prop or a shield…Our own people marginalized us like that.”
He said the show’s announcement could have been handled differently but defended its subject matter, telling NPR, “First thing to tell everybody is what the project is not. 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.”
He told Vulture: “Me and Nichelle are not props being used to protect someone else. We are people who feel a need to address issues the same way they do, and they should at least humanize the other end of those tweets and articles.”
NPR reported that the couple insist the show is meant to expose the problem of racism in modern times. “The series will likely feature an America divided, where the South has a system which looks like Apartheid-era South Africa. The goal, they say, is to show how today’s problems with racial issues — over-policing of black people, disenfranchisement through voter I.D. laws, lack of representation at the highest level of power — is rooted in the nation’s legacy of slavery,” NPR reported.
According to Vulture, both Spellmans are considered partners in the project not just part of the writing team. Benioff told Vulture, “We’ve known Malcolm and Nichelle a long time, socially, and always talked about doing something together at some point. And this felt like a good thing. Now we’re bonding under fire.”
Malcolm told Vulture: “They first called me and said they wanted to take us to lunch and talk about a project they had. They took me and Nichelle out to a restaurant and told us the history of it: They had this script, the movie version, but they felt taking it to TV would be better. And they knew they needed black voices on it.”
2. Nichelle Tramble Spellman Is a Writer on Other Major Television Shows & an Author
Neither Nichelle Tramble Spellman nor Malcolm Spellman is a stranger to major television productions.
Nichelle’s LinkedIn page lists a long serious of editing and writing credits. They include: Writer and supervising producer for The Good Wife on CBS/Paramount for four years. Writer and executive story editor for Justified on F/X Network for 10 months. Writer/story editor for Mercy by NBC/Universal for 10 months. Staff writer for Harper’s Island, CBS Paramount Studios, for six months. Staff writer on Women’s Murder Club for ABC for one year.
She is also the author of the books The Dying Ground by Random House, published in 2001, and The Last King, also by Random House, published in 2004.
She attended California State University at Long Beach.
3. Malcolm Spellman Also Has a Series of Television Credits to His Name & Works in Music
Malcolm Spellman has also worked on well-known productions.
According to IMDB, he “is a producer and writer, known for Empire (2015), Our Family Wedding (2010) and Foxy Brown.”
Empire has been described as a “hip hop family drama” and was called “the most diverse in network TV” by its executives, Daily Variety reports.
Arts Beat reports that Spellman is also the co-owner of Blackball Universe, “a tiny record label, and manager of Xavier Dphrepaulezz, a rising but obscure blues rock singer known as Fantastic Negrito.”
Spellman wrote on Facebook under a photo of himself working on a laptop, “You know the story, mom, it never changes: I gotta work twice as hard to get half as far.” He says on Facebook that he’s from Berkeley, California.
4. Nichelle Wants the Critics to Give the Show a Chance Before Making Up Their Minds About It
Nichelle Spellman has also defended the program in interviews.
“I do understand their concern,” Nichelle said to Salon of critics. “I wish their concern had been reserved to the night of the premiere, on HBO, on a Sunday night, when they watched and then they made a decision after they watched an hour of television as to whether or not we succeeded in what we set out to do.”
She told Vulture, “This is present day, or close to present day, and how the world would have evolved if the South had been successful seceding from the Union. And what was also exciting to me was the idea that in order to build this, we would have to rebuild world history … Okay, if this had happened here, how did the rest of the world change?”
5. The Show Announcement Was Met With Intense Protest but HBO Has Defended It as ‘a Risk Worth Taking’
A campaign against the show was ignited on social media by April Reign, the creator of #OscarsSoWhite. According to CNN, the #NoConfederate social media campaign launched on July 28, “with the goal of getting the cable network to cancel its plans for the series” by getting the hashtag to trend during Game of Thrones on July 30.
“The commodification of Black pain for the enjoyment of others must stop,” Reign told CNN.
Many on Twitter agreed. A sample:
However, even after that campaign, HBO said the show will continue. “We have great respect for the dialogue and concern being expressed around ‘Confederate,'” HBO told CNN. “We have faith that Nichelle, Dan, David and Malcolm 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.”
HBO’s president of programming Casey Bloys also stood by the show in the wake of protest over it, calling it “a risk worth taking,” but acknowledged “that the network made a mistake in announcing the show in the way it did,” TV Guide reported.
“Hindsight is 20/20. If I could do it over again, our mistake, HBO’s mistake — not the producers’ — was the idea that we’d be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a press release was misguided on our part,” he said, according to TV Guide.