HBO’s the Watchmen takes place in the same alternate reality as the Watchmen comic book series–meaning that in this universe, a giant squid from another dimension has fallen from the sky and killed millions with a psychic blast or that another worldly figure with unknowable power lives on Mars, guarding and the people on Earth.
However, alongside all of these typical superhero universe realities, racism still exists. The TV series takes place 34 years after the initial story laid out in the comics, but in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where echoes of the 1921 Race Massacre has left the city with fever-pitch racial tensions.
In 1921, Tulsa was home to what was known as one of few, but possibly the most developed and prosperous of the “Black Wall Streets” in America. It was also the site of one of the worst acts of racial violence in our country’s history. The riots were prompted by the unlawful arrest of Dick Rowland, a Black man accused of assaulting a White woman named Sarah Page. Following rumors that Rowland had been lynched rather than given a fair trial, a series of gun fights, mob lynching’s, fires and even law enforcement dropping bombs onto black homes and businesses, lead to 800 people to be hospitalized and an estimated 300 deaths. Watchmen opens with scenes of this massacre.
In the alternative universe of this show, black people in Tulsa receive government issued reparations for what happened to their ancestors through D.N.A testing. The tensions escalate as a result of the white people in the town believing that black people are receiving handouts from the government, but they also refuse to acknowledge the possibility that their ancestors were complacent in the tragedy that was the race massacre. This leads to the rise of a white supremacists group called the Seventh Kavalry. They have begun to attack the Tulsa Police via home invasion and murder, believing their group have been victims of racial violence themselves and are not getting justice.
Because of this, police officers have been instructed by law to conceal their identities by wearing masks over their faces as part of their uniforms. Along with their masks it is also unlawful for them to use their guns without calling in their intention to use their weapon first and only have access to the weapon when their gun has been remotely unlocked. When Angela Abar (Regina King), a detective receives news that her close friend has been killed by the Seventh Kavalry, she begins to investigate.
There is much to unpack with this show, but I think it is one of the most important shows in this Rennaissance era of television and cinema. It seems that in most superhero stories, black superheroes never have to worry about saving the world and also being killed by a police officer. But Watchmen addressed this matter when it absolutely did not have to. For example, when I go into the theater to watch The Avengers it is sometimes difficult to suspend my understanding of reality and believe wholeheartedly for two hours that Black characters in these movies exist in a world where their only worry is aliens from outer space… It was not the responsibility of Creator Damon Lindelof to write a show so heavily focused on racial tensions in America. He hired Black writers and consultants including celebrated playwright Branden Jacob Jenkins.
Most importantly, while I understand that superhero-centric programing is usually an escape for most people; it is also a very popular genre that can reach audiences who might not otherwise pursue historical content on their own Watchmen forces audiences who may not typically watch Black stories to consume this history In this universe, you cannot separate the protagonist Angela Abar from her blackness because everything around her enforces that blackness. As fun as it is to see Regina King in a black cape and mask fighting evildoers who want her dead, the evildoers are white supremacists—just as some evildoers are in the real and present world. While there are giant psychic squids from space, the show still takes place is America.