Within the first minutes of Watchmen’s debut episode on HBO, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” viewers are sent a very clear message. That message is that this is a show that is going to talk about race; more specifically racism, and attempt to do so without pulling any punches.
The graphic novel adaptation that’s more of a “remix” of the source material rather than a continuation of the original story, opens with a scene of a young Black boy in an empty theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood district. The boy is attentively watching a silent film called Trust in the Law! by legendary Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (based on a very real Black sheriff named Bass Reeves) while his sobbing mother plays the accompanying piano. This quickly unfolds into what is probably the most graphic and realistic depiction of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 ever seen on television or film.
Storefronts are vandalized and set ablaze by laughing white men KKK members; screaming and crying Black women are executed; armed, scrambling Black residents trip over the slain bodies of their neighbors while attempting to flee; Black children are crying while carrying their limp, unresponsive infant siblings; explosions and aerial attacks demolish homes; and the lifeless bodies of Black men are dragged across the battlefield, hitched to the back of pick up trucks.
It is very much depicted as a war on the thriving Black residents of the Greenwood district (or, Black Wall Street), which by all accounts, it was. While the casualty count is much disputed among surviving witnesses and historians–ranging from estimates of 55 to 300 deaths (heavier losses for Black residents in all estimates)–it’s thought to be the worst incident of racial violence in US history and more than 6,000 Black Greenwood residents were arrested and detained. It’s an arresting, anguish-inducing introduction that leaves the audience breathlessly glued to their screens.
That gives the impression that HBO’s Watchmen may be a series that is unafraid to display the full scale of white supremacist violence, a territory often neglected in entertainment, and doing so while centering a historical event that is often left out of standard U.S. history education.
That boldness in the opening scene is what makes the subsequent scenes and messaging of the episode more difficult to reconcile.
Shortly after the recreation of the Tulsa Race Massacre, we are transported to an alternate reality of present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma. A Black cop pulls over a redneck who is blasting rap music in his pick-up truck on a highway. While the driver is reaching for his license and registration, the cop notices a Rorschach mask (a telltale sign of belonging to a white supremacist group called The Calvary) falling out of the driver’s glove compartment. Unnerved by the sight, the cop asks the man to remain in his car, while he retreats back to his patrol vehicle.
In this alternate reality, cops are not allowed access to their firearm until they get permission granted by some sort of risk assessment dispatcher, whose job is to ascertain the level of threat and determine the need for firearm access. The cop is frustrated by the lackadaisical response of the dispatcher on the other line who slowly greenlights the release of his firearm from its locked holster while the cop’s safety is in apparent danger. Eventually, the cop gets control of his gun, however, when he glances up, it’s too late–the Rorschach-masked redneck shoots him several times in the chest before fleeing.
This scene supports a talking point often employed by champions of law enforcement, that cops are restrained by harm reduction reforms at the possible expense of their lives and ability to do their jobs. Former FBI Director James Comey cited police body cams as a reason for a spike in crime since it inhibited cops who were ‘afraid of doing something wrong.’’ Though Comey incurred the wrath of the public after those statements–and despite the fact that police work is getting progressively safer and is not as dangerous being a fisherman, logger or a farmer–it’s still a popular belief among the Blue Lives Matter crowd that is often supported through entertainment (or “copaganda”) like Law & Order: SVU, NYPD Blue and so many other cop-centered shows.
What Watchmen does is blur the intent of this trope by making the police force visibly more non-white, and making the bad guys flannel-clad, hillbilly white supremacists.
In the series, cops are in constant mortal danger as they are targeted by a violent and racist militia called The Seventh Kalvary, and are forced to use masks to hide their identity. Oscar-winner Regina King’s character Sister Night is a retired cop-turned masked vigilante, taking on white supremacists in a way that is understandably satisfying to watch for an audience who rarely sees this kind of retribution in real life. She operates both alongside and outside of the law as a renegade. She kidnaps and physically assaults suspects, even going a little overboard with interrogations, but it’s okay because she’s just so passionate about justice and it’s a white supremacist– albeit a poor one who lives in a trailer, the most easily contemptible kind.
This is one of Watchmen’s more glaring contradictions. It is a show that boldly dives headfirst into a critique of white supremacy only to use common tropes to impugn the usual suspects of racism and engender sympathy for an occupation that largely functions to enforce it. Even in a world where it spontaneously rains tiny squids, a reality in which law enforcement is an impassioned combatant to white supremacy seems even more fantastical by comparison. In a recent interview with Vulture, show creator Damon Lindelof comments on being confronted by this critique:
“When we went to TCA [a Television Critics Association panel], the very first question was asked by Eric Deggans from NPR, a writer who I think is phenomenal. He also happens to be a man of color. He said, “I think the only interpretation that you can possibly take from this pilot is that we’re supposed to believe that the cops protect Black people in this world? I don’t buy that for a second.” I was like, “Well, I think we should revisit this question after you’ve seen all nine episodes.” I’m not going to hide behind the fact that this is an alternate world. I’m not telling anybody how to feel about the police. It’s a TV show. At the end of these nine episodes, are you going to feel that the police are racist? No. You’re going to feel like some are, and you’re going to feel like some aren’t.”
While his comments don’t necessarily inspire much confidence that the show’s takeaway regarding law enforcement’s place in systemic racism will amount to more than “a few bad apples spoiling an otherwise salvageable bunch,” it still may be worth doing as Lindelof said: watching the remaining episodes to see how it all plays out.
The adaptation is markedly different from the original graphic novel and seems like it’s intending to reconcile critiques of the novel’s depiction of women and people of color with contemporary sensibilities. But much like the movie, the series is heavy with pre-existing context from the source material and shrouded in mystery, especially for those of us unfamiliar with that source material.
Between mentions of interdimensional collisions, “Redfordations,” (reparations handed out to Black people under this universe’s president, the actor Robert Redford) Jeremy Irons inhabiting a medieval castle while being waited on by creepily attentive house staff who call him master; and Sister Night and her Black husband (Yahya Abdul-Mateen) being parents to presumably white children, there are many questions that need to be answered.
With already commanding performances from King, and *spoiler alert* Don Johnson who portrays the recently departed character Chief Judd Crawford, one can’t help but want to tune in to see where this world that juxtaposes the brutally familiar with the fantastical leads us–even as it toggles between fresh refreshing candidness and tired tropes.
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