Watchmen is a fictional program, yet it begins by showing the audience a silent film concerning Bass Reeves, who—very much a nonfiction figure—was the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. He passed away in 1910. When the camera pulls back, a young boy is revealed to be watching this silent film in an empty theater, idolizing Reeves from his seat as bombs and muffled gunfire can be heard in the background.
The boy’s parents, two black middle class residents of Tulsa, rush through the streets and dodge bullets as they ship their young son off to safety. It is June 1921, and they are trying to survive the (nonfiction) Tulsa race riot.
This is likely not the Watchmen one was expecting to see when it was announced that Damon Lindelof would be adapting the popular graphic novel for the small screen. Since its inception and resultant early buzz, the show has been shrouded in mystery, and after watching the pilot, viewers are going to have questions. HBO‘s version of the story is not directly shaped from the source material, but rather, it is an original take based on a few key figures from the Watchmen universe. Understanding Lindelof’s decisions here could have something to do with the show’s Tulsa setting.
Watchmen, so far, has a huge and potentially growing following. A reported 1.5 million people tuned in for its premiere on TV and across streaming platforms, which makes it the most viewed premium cable debut of the year, and the biggest HBO debut since the first episode of Westworld in 2016. Yet some fans of the original comic are not necessarily treating it with the intellectual fervor it deserves. With a visually (and sonically) striking title sequence, HBO’s rendition of Watchmen is ambitious, and like its source material, it is, without a doubt, so far one of the more political expressions seen in the overall superhero genre.
While it is often neglected from academic curricula, the Tulsa race riot—also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre—was a very real occurrence in 1921. Business was booming for Black Oklahomans in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, and racial tensions were high enough to spark one of the most harrowing incidents of racial violence in the history of the United States. White residents attacked what was known as “Black Wall Street” with guns, explosives, and bombs dropped from private planes.
Watchmen takes this historical event and weaves it into the narrative of the series, imagining the consequences of such a violent, city-wide act. Its retro-futuristic vibe takes place decades after 1921, in a time when Richard Nixon was never impeached for the Watergate Scandal, and when Robert Redford has become a liberal-reform implementing (and extended term) President of the United States.
In the contemporary alternate reality of the show, President Redford’s reforms (known as “Redfordations”) have offered reparations for former victims of racial violence and positioned black Oklahomans to have some advantages typically afforded only to white Americans. In this world, white supremacist outlaws wear Rorschach masks (inspired by the original comic’s anti-hero) and form cavalries that kill police officers, who wear different masks to protect their identities and who do not have easy access to firearms because of a complicated and centralized approval method. The Rorschach-wearing criminals send terroristic videos about ethnic cleansing to the police, taunting them further.
The series is also undoubtedly entertaining. It is a joy to watch Oscar-winner Regina King take on a role that is so unlike the ones that have garnered her prestigious awards and accolades in the past. Audiences still have appearances from actors Jean Smart and Hong Chau to look forward to in future episodes (and hopefully they show up soon, because the first episode was a bit heavy on the guys with the exception of King’s character).
And, with the current ongoing debate about the classification of superhero blockbusters (specifically the Marvel ones, according to Martin Scorsese) as “real” films, at least we have a substantial expression of the genre like Watchmen on TV to lean on. Who watches the Watchmen? Well, you should, for starters. With the story anchored to a historical fact, a clearer pathway towards more smart, thought-provoking fiction may emerge.