The history of race in the United States is a haunting one. Its spectre refuses to leave because in large part American society has adamantly refused to acknowledge it, let alone grapple with it in a meaningful way. So it sticks around in the kind of discomfort displayed in hushed tones, averting eyes, and a refusal to acknowledge that the past is present within the present. It thrives and dies in equal measure within society’s decision to forget. This history of racism oozes throughout the pilot episode of HBO’s Watchmen and most importantly in its opening sequence.
The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 is one of those incidents that is often forgotten in the larger context of American history. Rarely mentioned in textbooks chronicling the journey of this country, it stands out as one of the darkest stains on the American tapestry. The Greenwood neighbourhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma was colloquially known as “Black Wall Street” due to its relatively prosperous business district. From May 31st to June 1st, 1921, a mob of white Americans fuelled by racism attacked the Greenwood neighbourhood. Over the course of eighteen hours, at least three hundred people were killed, more than ten thousand black residents were left homeless, and dozens of blocks were left in rubble and smoke. Black residents who survived the massacre were detained in camps in Tulsa’s fairgrounds.
The world of Watchmen straddles that dreamlike line in between our reality and the story that it seeks to unfold. The terror in the opening sequence is vivid in the reality it speaks of. The emotion is palpable as a young black couple dodges through the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, hoping to get themselves to safety. They cannot, but they hide away their child in a box, hoping that he at least will some safety and some life. After the shooting stops, the little one finds a child in a field, wrapped up in an American flag. It’s not a particularly subtle moment, but the lack of subtlety works in driving home the message of upon whose backs the identity of a nation is built. The fire raging across the skies of Tulsa just drives that message home.
The next sequence blends the reality with a fantasy. The reality of a terror faced during a police stop when the law protects them blends with the fantasy of it being a black cop and a white man in the vehicle. When Regina King makes her first appearance as Detective Angela Abar, she is in a classroom, ostensibly talking about her cover career as a baker. A white child asks if she opened her bakery with the show’s equivalent of reparations (“Redford-ations” – President Robert Redford who enacted the policy) and the line between reality and fantasy is blurred yet again, with the additional realization that bigotry can be enshrined quite quickly. That police officers would use the threat of being under attack to use their weapons is reality, that they would need permission to do so is a fantasy.
The world-building of Watchmen is excellent. The characters are deftly established, the history of this world is doled out in just the right amounts, and the sense of urgency is prevalent and necessary for the audience interest to remain piqued. The doling out of history in the right amounts is especially key – I want to know why the masks are necessary, why Central Command must release the weapons, and where this sense of vigilantism in the show’s mythos comes from but without the series coming across a deluge of information. The cinematography is stunning, the direction is solid and the dialogue, if off-kilter at times, is largely enjoyable. There are a couple of moments in the first episode that make me question the show’s ability to maintain an iron grip on its racial allegory, but for now, I am curious.
- That opening sequence is harrowing.
- The opening nod to Bass Reeves is an interesting historical tidbit. Dig into his history for a tale worthy of a telling itself.
- Regina King should add another Emmy to her shelf for this performance.
- The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is superb.
- “I got a white supremacy and he smells like bleach.”
- Jeremy Irons in a castle is an aesthetic!
- Torture doesn’t work and I continue to dislike storytelling moments that give any credence to that.
*The historical references at the beginning of this review are from The Washington Post, history.com, and the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.