The first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” opens with a massacre, specifically the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The Tulsa Massacre was a real event, in which militia forces destroyed a black neighborhood so prosperous that it was sometimes referred to as “Black Wall Street.” “Watchmen” makes little effort to hold back on the gory details.
The massacre is seen through the eyes of a child who watches as bodies are sprayed by gunshots and set on fire. Later, he wakes up alone in a field after witnessing his parents’ death.
For many, the premiere of “Watchmen” was the first time they had heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre or of Black Wall Street. The response was mainly positive, and many congratulated Damon Lindelof, the white showrunner, for highlighting an ugly part of America’s past not taught in most high school history courses. Others expressed doubt that a show about superheroes could handle the legacy of the Tulsa Massacre without trivializing it.
“Watchmen” may be peppered with recreations of historical events, but the TV show is more of an allegory for our world than a direct representation. The Watchmen are a vigilante police force, who wear masks after a white supremacist group called the Calvary killed many of their members. Among the survivors are Sister Night, played by Regina King, and Judd Crawford, the police chief (Don Johnson). The plot of “Watchmen” is put into motion when a member of the Calvary murders one of the Watchmen, ending a three-year long peace.
As in the original comics, HBO’s “Watchmen” takes place in a universe parallel to ours. In this universe, superheroes appeared on Earth in the 1940s and changed the course of history. Robert Redford has been president for 30 years, black people received reparations in the 70s and purple squid occasionally fall from the sky — the work of comic-book regular (although unseen in the show so far) Dr. Manhattan.
The fantastical elements of “Watchmen” make the inclusion of the Tulsa Massacre somewhat more disturbing. Rather than detracting from the social commentary of the show, the disreality of the Watchmen universe lures the audience into a false sense of safety. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Tulsa Massacre is just another deviation from history. Upon learning that it’s not, the comic book facade of the show fades back into something more sinister.
Lindelof’s choice to depict the Tulsa Massacre points to a larger theme surrounding the conversation about “Watchmen.” “Watchmen” is “woke.” It has a black female protagonist and tackles hot-button issues such as the rise of white supremacy and reparations. Lindelof also made the admirable choice to hire mainly black writers for the show.
Yet certain events that take place within the first two episodes cast doubt on whether “Watchmen” truly has social justice in mind. In the first episode, a black policeman is shot by a white man because he can’t get out his gun in time. If only that police officer had had his gun, the show seems to say, then everything would be alright. Later on, Regina King’s character, a black woman, puts a white supremacist in a futuristic version of a lie-detector test and proceeds to torture him for information, as if in some sort of topsy-turvy version of Guantanamo Bay.
This is not to say that “Watchmen” is reverse racist. Rather, “Watchmen” appears to justify police violence by depicting scenarios in which the police are black and the people they shoot, kill and torture are white supremacists. It’s all too easy to come from an episode thinking that those methods are necessary, ignoring the very real history of police in our country abusing power to oppress minority groups.
Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than a scene from the second episode, in which the Watchmen police force violently tases a group of innocent people, some of whom may or may not be members of the Calvary. The sight of policemen dragging people out of their homes and assaulting them almost calls to mind the wreckage of the Tulsa Massacre.
With such an explosive and politically radical beginning, “Watchmen”’s regressive take on police violence is disappointing. Yet, at the end of the second episode, something happens that implies that the viewer is not always meant to side with the Watchmen police force. It remains to be seen how much of the Watchmen’s actions the show actually condones and how much it wishes to play with audience expectations.
Gabriella Del Greco SC ’21 is one of TSL’s TV columnists, majoring in economics. Her favorite meal is Malott breakfast, and she probably spends too much time watching TV.