HBO's 'Watchmen' taught me about the Tulsa massacre
Today is known as Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the United States. As a way of commemorating the occasion and promoting stories about black people, HBO is making its 2019 limited series Watchmen available to view for free all this weekend on their website and on demand. Based on the 1980s comic book series by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, the show was developed by Damon Lindelof, known as co-creator and showrunner of Lost. Mostly following new characters, and looking to make their struggles more contemporary, Lindelof decided to make the show's central focus on racism. He would explore the legacies of black trauma in America's history, along with racial tensions in the police. With recent protests addressing the inequality of black people in society and their treatment by law enforcement, the Watchmen TV series has emerged today as not only slightly prophetic, but also one of the most crucial fictional series to watch.
It's easy to talk about the power of the performances on screen. The cast consists of a wealth of acclaimed actors and award winners, including Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Louis Gossett Jr., and Don Johnson. And I can't say enough about Regina King—who in my mind has been an MVP of film and television for the last 25 years—as she becomes the emotional anchor in this series. But much of the credit for Watchmen's resonance belongs to the writers. When Lindelof set out to tackle heavy themes of race and white supremacy, he made sure to surround himself with a diverse group of people: Only a third of them were white men. That said, it's one thing to have the people in the room, and it's a different thing to actually listen to what they have to say. In an interview with Tirhakah Love, Lindelof admitted that he "had to hear some hard truths" from his fellow writers. This would lead to a level of open-mindedness and inclusion, where he felt like he didn't seek to keep control the direction of the story, and no one "[felt] like they were compromising their values."
Without that teamwork in the writers' room, it's hard to know whether Watchmen would have had the audacity to essentially make the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma the origin for the story. I don't think the series would have had as much of an initial impact if they didn't open with it. For me and many people watching the series, it was our first introduction to an atrocious time in our country's history, where mobs of white people attacked and destroyed what was once the wealthiest black community in the country. Sadly, historical accounts largely ignored this event. When Lindelof first learned of it, it was right around the time he was asked by HBO to develop the Watchmen series, and he decided it would be a key element in the story. Eventually, the writers settled on making it the first scene, and director Nicole Kassell ensured that the audience would understand exactly how the black citizens of the Greenwood district felt in those moments. The episode opens with a young black boy watching his idol on a theater screen, and it doesn't take long for loud explosions to jar both the boy and the audience out of a sense of escapism. Throughout the scene, the camera shakes and mostly stays low to the ground, keeping us in the perspective of the child as he is carried through the chaos. The show doesn't shy away from the dire imagery of senseless death and horrific violence. In the wake of the violence arising from today's protests against police brutality, the episode's depiction of "Black Wall Street" is even harder to watch now than it was when it originally aired last October.
While this scene set the pace for the rest of the show's examination of race relations, one episode in particular would become the apex as it explored a lesser-known character from the comic series. MAJOR SPOILERS are ahead, so if you wish to avoid them, skip to the last paragraph. Throughout the series, we saw characters watching a show-within-the show called "American Hero Story", which told the tale of the hero who founded the Minutemen, Watchmen's 1930s version of the Avengers. That hero was known as Hooded Justice, and his true identity had never been revealed in the original comics or other adaptations. The HBO series decided to break that ground in shocking and controversial fashion. In the sixth episode, Hooded Justice was revealed as a black police officer who incidentally became the costumed vigilante after barely surviving a brutal lynching by his white colleagues on the force. It was a somber setting with brutally honest performances, and the events of this episode served as the blueprint for the central story and the motivations of the characters in present day.
There's plenty else to love in this version of Watchmen. The cinematography is beautiful, and the show employs time-jumping and the narrative twist that have become staples of other series run by Lindelof, keeping the audience engaged and guessing. Fortunately, none of that ever pulls away from the core theme of systemic racism and inequality. In today's landscape, Watchmen continues the conversation that all of us should be having.