Maybe someone should tell PBS to quit while they're ahead. In a press tour this week, PBS president and CEO Paula A. Kerger announced that the network has optioned a new scripted series hoping to continue the momentum of the ever-popular Downton Abbey, and they've optioned a six-episode yet to be titled Civil War miniseries... with director Ridley Scott at the helm. Sound the alarm and raise the red flag, because this sounds like a problem waiting to happen.
Kerger said PBS was "looking to do drama that is a little different than what everyone else is doing, which is not just to entertain but to educate and inspire." I will concede that I love public broadcasting and it provides a necessary and free service that certainly educates and entertains (have y'all SEEN what Ken Burns can do?) But is optioning a Civil War era drama, all but entirely fraught with the ugly American history of slavery, directed by Ridley Scott a prudent decision?
Apparently in early talks, the plot of the series will be:
[A] medical drama, based on true stories and research from the past three years, follows two volunteer nurses on opposing sides of the Civil War — Mary Phinney, a New England abolitionist, and Emma Green, a young Confederate belle. The women collide at the Green family’s hotel, which has been turned into a Union Army Hospital in the longest-occupied Confederate city of the war, Alexandria, Virginia. The series explores the families’ conflicted loyalties and the expanded role of women and medicine in the midst of the war.
Maybe, just maybe, if I'm to give Scott the benefit of the doubt, his work on this series is to be penance for the flagrant racism of Exodus: Gods and Kings. When confronted and asked about his decision to use an all-white cast to play Egyptian peoples, Scott had a short, self-righteous answer and told critics to "get a life," because, apparently, films fare better and get bigger budgets if their casts are Caucasian. Great damage control there, Scott. The film was so offensive that it was literally banned in Egypt for what they cite as historical inaccuracies and for what I assume was, behind the scenes, astonishment at the shade of it all.
Also, from the concept details alone, it looks like this Civil War era drama will be told through the lens of two white women (unless one of the nurses is black, which seems unlikely). Is that a point of view that is lacking? Yes, the plight of female nurses during the Civil War and their experiences are a worthy history to tell, but is it not patronizing to film a Civil War miniseries through a white perspective? PBS would have done well to make sure this drama was directed and produced by a director of color, not to fulfill some kind of quota or to shirk criticism, but because the Civil War should be told from an African-American point of view in a fresh, new way. We'll wait and see what happens.
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