How 'Watchmen' Explores Generational Black Trauma And Provides A Path Beyond The Pain
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Features , Television

How 'Watchmen' Explores Generational Black Trauma And Provides A Path Beyond The Pain

*Editor’s Note: Spoilers for the HBO series Watchmen below*

Season one of HBO’s latest hit series Watchmen ended Sunday and was not only engaging as an entertainment spectacle, but it managed to top the original Watchmen graphic novel, a piece of literature that is considered “unfilmable.” By using the source material as a jumping off point, HBO’s Watchmen recentered the story around the African American experience of trauma and resilience, using the Tulsa 1921 massacre as a backdrop and catalyst for a profound meditation of Black life. Even though showrunner and creator Damon Lindelof himself isn’t Black, he assembled a team of Black creatives, writers, producers and directors to create one of the Blackest entertainment experiences of 2019 and potentially of the decade.

Cord Jefferson, Christal Henry, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Janine Nabers and executive producer/director Stephen Williams (African-Canadian), gave voice to the generational stress and pressure Black Americans and the broader Black American diaspora feel every day, a stress that sometimes becomes so comfortable we forget that it’s always there, living in the background. Those writers were able to tap into that under-recognized source of that stress and call it out into the open. The source—America itself—was put on trial throughout the series, just like Adrian Veidt himself was while on Europa. The wounds needed to be seen, and these writers were able to showcase those wounds to the world under the guise of a superhero show.

Regina King stars as Angela Abar, a formidable cop, but she’s also a loving mother to her three adoptive children and wife to her doting husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and a lost child looking for family. She meets her last-living relative, her grandfather, Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) under unpleasant circumstances, when he calls her to a crime scene to show her he has murdered her friend and the Tulsa chief of police. With white supremacist villains on the loose and not a lot of time to explain, Will convinces Angela to take his “nostalgia” pills that allow her to experience his memories for herself. Through this genius plot device, Angela walks a mile in her grandfather’s shoes and shows how generational trauma is inherited and toxic cycles continue without us even being conscious of them.

Both Angela and Will dedicated their lives to the law from earlier traumas as well as childhood beliefs that the law would, in fact save them. “Trust in the law” is what Will was taught from his favorite Bass Reeves film, and that same notion was handed down to Angela when the law stepped in to kill the man who murdered her parents. However, that childlike idea was stepped upon thanks to other powers that be, such as white supremacy, especially in Will’s case. The institution of whiteness kept Will from becoming a superhero in the open, and that same institution attempted to keep Angela in check by playing on her childhood ideals about law enforcement as well as her longing for family. For Angela, the police fraternity was her family, but it was a family that she would have to break from in order to become free, similar to how Will had to break from his racist tormentors on the police force to become Hooded Justice. In both cases, Angela and Will realized that the law itself is the perpetrator of the generational violence by which they have been victimized. American law is built on Black trauma with white supremacy at the head, symbolized by both Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), the Ku Klux Klan and the generations-old racist cult Cyclops. Much like our real-life white supremacist institutions, Cyclops simply morphs into Watchmen‘s present-day organization Seventh Kalvary, Angela’s primary nemesis. This proves that defeating individuals and not systems and the ideologies that prop them up cannot create true victory.

There is a lot of power in what Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) tells Angela—“Wounds need air to heal.” Angela has had all types of wounds throughout her life, from her parents dying in front of her to her grandmother collapsing in death right after rescuing her from a cruel orphanage. Angela had wounds she didn’t even known she had, stemming from Will’s own traumatic past as a survivor of the Tulsa massacre. After taking Will’s Nostalgia pills, she began to see a lot of her own life story, played out in Will’s actions. She might not have known why she decided to create a costume that featured a hood and obscuring face makeup, but she realized why once she saw her grandfather do the exact same thing. Even more powerfully, she was able to see why the hood carried so much symbolism; Will’s hood was the same one racist cops put on him when they lynched him.

By seeing Will’s origin story, starting with Tulsa, she was able to understand that she carried a legacy of superheroism in her veins, a legacy that America constantly tried to obscure. Through those pills and through the final reconciliation with her grandfather in the finale, She had generational weight that was only lifted once she embraced her past, symbolized by the presence of her grandfather. Only then could she welcome the present and the future, symbolized in the sole egg Dr. Manhattan left behind. Simultaneously, Will is able to heal his own trauma as well, because through Angela, Will is afforded the opportunity to finally make amends to the family he left broken so many years ago after he became consumed with Hooded Justice. Through Angela, Will is able to course-correct his lineage and nurture the legacy of his son and wife in a way he couldn’t do when he was a younger man. Both sides of the family tree become whole again through the simple act of recognizing the other’s wounds.

The solution that Watchmen offers, therefore, is that we as Black America, as well as the entire nation, need to let these wounds of the past finally come to the surface. We need to address them in whatever way we can, whether that’s without a chaser or with a little sugar in the form of genre entertainment. However we take on those wounds, it needs to be done in the light of day, so they can get the air they need to heal. Will’s statement is simple, but it’s so profound. It’s this simple statement that secures Watchmen as truly understanding the Black experience because within that statement is a path forward, a path towards the future.

If we’re comparing Watchmen to some of the recent Black American media we’ve been privy to in recent weeks, this series has been able to showcase the illness and provide the medicine, as it were. Watchmen gave us a truly strong Black female character in the form of Angela Abar. She (presumably) becomes the strongest woman in the universe not because she stuffs her feelings or is a long-suffering “mule of the world.” She becomes the strongest woman because she finally allows those emotional walls to break, lets in the past, and learns who she is and where she comes from. She becomes strong because she allows herself to be vulnerable.

One of the biggest criticisms of media that gets lumped into the “Black trauma porn” category is that they don’t provide that pathway forward beyond the pain. They don’t engage in actively trying to heal that pain. That one element is probably what Black America needs most of all from its entertainment; we already know the damage that has been done to us and will probably always be done to us in some shape or form. What we need now is a guiding light towards reckoning with all of that weight. What we need is, in fact, permission to reckon with that weight, permission to allow ourselves to be off of our guards for at least a few minutes to cry, to be angry, to feel the fear and hurt, and to release. We need time to be in the healing air to breathe freely. Why has it taken so long for a piece of Black media to address this simple fact?

We’ve seen the past and the present of Angela’s life. What is truly tantalizing now is what the future holds for her. We can assume that Angela did, indeed, inherit Dr. Manhattan’s powers. What will she do with them? Arguably, she won’t use them for narcissistic ends, unlike Lady Trieu (Hong Chau). She also won’t let them rot like Dr. Manhattan did for years; Will was right to say that Dr. Manhattan could have done more than he did to help the world with the powers he had. Lindelof himself knows what will happen with Angela’s powers, whether or not we get a second season.

“If, in fact, Angela Abar is now empowered by the legacy of Will and the legacy of Doctor Manhattan, she is ready to take on white supremacy in way that Doctor Manhattan was never interested in taking on,” he said to Vulture. “That’s going to be a battle that goes on until the end of time, unfortunately. I’d like to be more pie in the sky, but if I learned anything through the experience of writing the show and reading all the things I’ve been reading, it’s the insidiousness of white supremacy. I don’t think that I ever would have even put it in the show if I felt like we were going to try to convince the audience that it could be defeated. But we could convince the audience that it was worthy of pushing back and fighting against, which is more than most superhero stories do.”

True, it is a battle that will go on indefinitely. But Lindelof is right in mentioning that fighting back is what is most important, and for Angela–as well as America as a whole–the best way to fight back is to heal oneself first. You can’t fight against anything on an empty tank, and that’s what Angela, and a lot of Black America, have been forced to do for generations. Thanks to Redfordations, Angela and Cal have plenty of money to support themselves and three children and start on the healing path. If we’re allowed to heal ourselves, regain our strength, and double our resolve–and get economic reparations for the generations of trauma we’ve endured–we could have more than enough juice in the tank to battle white supremacy. Angela’s first step on the water is proof of how transformative healing can be. She shows how much agency and personal power a person can gain from being allowed to become whole again.

Watchmen has given a masterclass to writers in how to approach the Black audience. If you have a story to tell about Black life, you cannot tell it simply from the point of view of trauma. Yes, Black life is inherently traumatic thanks to the society we live in, but that’s not all Black people are. We are emotional beings who have been profoundly hurt, and the hurt continues because we are not allowed to heal. Hopefully, Watchmen will inspire more art where Black people are not just traumatized but empowered to face the healing air.


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Photo credit: HBO

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