HBO’s Watchmen Gives America A Black History Lesson It Desperately Needs

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 14: Regina King attends the premiere of HBO's "Watchmen" at The Cinerama Dome on October 14, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

HBO’s Watchmen Gives America A Black History Lesson It Desperately Needs

“If you’re as ignorant as me, watch this.”

Published 3 weeks ago

Written by Vanessa Etienne

The premiere of Watchmen, HBO’s new series based on Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s graphic novel, was one of the most watched programs in the cable network’s history with 1.5 million viewers. And the majority of those viewers are assumed to be white men.

That explains why #BlackWallStreet started trending on social media shortly after the series premiere on Sunday (Oct. 20): Watchmen snuck a lesson in Black history right in the opening scene that had many people rushing to Wikipedia.

In the series, Regina King plays a Black woman named Sister Night who dives into topics of racism, white supremacy and police brutality against Black people. The series premiere opened with a horrific scene of the so-called Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – or what many call the Black Wall Street massacre — when white Oklahomans attacked a prosperous Black neighborhood, burning businesses and killing hundreds of Black residents. The show’s depiction of the massacre ended with reparations to the victims and their children. In real life, the horrific incident was all but erased from mainstream consciousness. 

Because the Tulsa massacre was left out of most history books, Watchmen opened the eyes of many of its viewers to this dark chapter of the American story. Many viewers shared their disbelief that Watchmen was the first they had ever heard of the Tulsa massacre, and that they were never taught about it in school:

Black folks on social media expressed satisfaction that a vital piece of history was finally coming to light. Some even added more context to the story:

While the recreation of the massacre was unsettling, Watchmen series creator Damon Lindelof wanted to include ideas of political realism, deep psychological dive on characters and nonlinear storytelling. In an interview with NBC News, he said, “What is creating the most anxiety in America right now? And for me the answer is undeniably race. Superheroes can not defeat racism.” 

Director Nicole Kassell recounted to Slate.com what went into recreating the event for the show:

“Enormous amount of time went into planning that. From reading a book, The Burning by Tim Madigan. When I read the script, Damon [Lindeloff, series creator] told me Tulsa ’21’s real,” says Kassell. “We went to Greenwood and Tulsa and met with the people there, the center there. It was 250 people at least. Incredible number of stunts. I definitely did the research. I remember reading how Ava DuVernay did the bridge sequence in Selma. How Spielberg did Saving Private Ryan. As a film person I had been studying those sequences and I definitely remember reading that Ava had that set blessed. We happened to be filming on the 97th anniversary. Our Day One of production was Day One of the massacre. We had a priest come and bless the set.”

Regina King told the Los Angeles Times, “At the end of these nine episodes, I hope we are left with people owning their feelings and feel true to express them. It’s not easy. But because [of] this world that Damon has created that is putting a mirror up to our country right now, it will help ease that discomfort so that people can express what they feel. If you don’t like it, share why. What came up for you? If you like it, what came up for you? If that happens, then we’ve succeeded.”

Following the premiere, many are taking it upon themselves to learn more about Black Wall Street.

Hopefully pop culture will continue to do what our education system failed to, and bring more of America’s true history to light.

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

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