Who Watches ‘Watchmen’?

A landmark comic becomes a show that spins the popular notion of black-white accepted realities around

Sufiya Abdur-Rahman
Dec 5, 2019 · 10 min read
Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation’s shock and despair at witnessing the massive loss of life and destruction of physical and psychological identity turned to resolve in some and furor in others, our leaders planned. The terror attacks on American landmarks were an act of war, they said. America would respond in kind. One week later, with the heap of concrete, rebar, and glass to which the World Trade Center had been reduced still smoldering — and many Americans’ rage along with it — the president authorized the use of force against those responsible. We would get our retribution. Not even a month later, Americans erupted in cheers watching U.S. B-52s pepper Afghanistan with bombs. Such were the consequences — swift, decisive, and devastating — for inflicting pain upon our nation.

In the months following May 31, 1921, when black Tulsans’ disappointment and outrage at witnessing the massive loss of life and destruction of physical and psychological identity turned into despondency in some and determination in others, our leaders did nothing. The looting of businesses and massacre of citizens during the Tulsa Race Riot were par for the course, they seemed to say. Black Wall Street was on its own. One year later — with no help from the city, state, nor federal government — those who remained in Greenwood, Okla., rebuilt and, over decades, would continue to do so. But, there would be no retribution. No convictions and no charges for the white perpetrators, nor reparations, apology, or even, for a long while, acknowledgement for the blacks perpetrated against. Such were and remain the consequences for inflicting pain upon black Americans — nonexistent.

In the America of HBO’s Watchmen, however, where vengeance is king, it’s those who’ve endured homegrown horrors who torment their enemies, right or wrong, while the victims of perceived foreign atrocities must suffer in silence. Key members of the first group, notably, are black and those of the second are white. What results is a mind-bending about-face that forces viewers to reexamine the norms of our American society and question how life feels from the other side.

Watchmen, which premiered Oct. 20 and runs for nine episodes, takes place in the modern-day Tulsa of an America with an alternate past. In Watchmen’s America, the U.S. won the Vietnam War. As a result, Nixon was never impeached, and the actor Robert Redford succeeded him. While some aspects of their world are the same, there are differences. The Tulsa Race Riot, for example, happened there just as it did here. But our 9/11 is their 11/2, the day in 1985 when a giant trans-dimensional squid attacked New York City, killing not three thousand but three million people, whose deaths appear to have gone unavenged.

These two events form the nexus upon which the series’ two most central characters’, Tulsa police detectives Angela Abar (Regina King), aka Sister Night, and Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson), aka Looking Glass, lives hinge.

Within the first five minutes of the pilot episode, the audience learns that it must frame its view of their world through the lens of extreme racial violence. White Tulsans riot during an almost unbelievable but absolutely true piece of history; viewers are made to watch a little boy cradle a limp black baby in his arms, an airplane dynamite a black-owned business to bits, and a moving car drag two black bodies behind it from ropes knotted around their ankles. It’s a lot. Two young black children survive but in the midst of such hatred and destruction, it’s uncertain whether survival for them is even worthwhile.

The question the series asks then is how people should go on after suffering the worst day of their lives? For blacks in our America, the answer, more often than not — especially when on the receiving end of racial violence — is to swallow the anger and find the strength to persevere.

This is the narrative that emerged about survivors and relatives of victims of the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church after some told the young white man who shot and killed nine black parishioners, “I forgive you.” It’s why bespectacled seamstress Rosa Parks, who without violence refused to surrender her public bus seat to a white man, made the perfect spokeswoman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was called “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” It’s why Sybrina Fulton, who always looked composed and sounded measured at rallies and interviews after her teenage son Trayvon Martin was murdered by a neighborhood vigilante, continues to receive awards and grace magazine covers.

This image of the benevolent black is nice to believe but not a fair representation of reality. Watchmen’s portrayal of the vengeful black isn’t reality either and isn’t supposed to be.

By the end of the pilot, it’s revealed that one of the children who survived the massacre is responsible for hanging Tulsa’s current police chief, presumably in retaliation for white residents’ murder of his parents and others 98 years prior. Angela, we learn, became Sister Night after members of a white supremacist cult, the Seventh Kalvary, attacked her and other members of the force in their homes one Christmas Eve. The injustice gives her and her fellow officers license to veil their faces and “beat shit out of these fucks,” in the Russian-accented words of Red Scare, another masked cop.

So the answer, for the only significant blacks in Watchmen’s America, is — more often than not — to serve up retribution through pain meted out to supposed wrongdoers.

On one hand, it’s empowering to see a tiny black woman driving a muscle car, kicking ass, and taking no crap from racists, criminals, and even higher-ups. On the other, it’s unnerving to recognize how this fantasy of the strong black woman leaves Angela as little room to show human weakness as many comic book superheroes had before the original Watchmen comic books were published between 1986 and ‘87.

Because of characters like Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and Adrian Viedt, that series effectively called into question the right versus wrong, good versus evil mentality that permeated classic comics. The HBO series blurs the morality line within its characters with equal success. When Angela finds a Ku Klux Klan robe in a hidden compartment of the closet of her beloved chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), viewers at first don’t know whether to feel glad that the old man got to him or sad that a so-called good guy was not.

The show is full of similar ambiguities. They begin early, as in the first episode when a black patrol officer wearing yellow lycra over his nose, cheeks, chin, and mouth pulls over a white man in a trucker’s cap that looks like it’d been rolled in his back jeans pocket, driving a beat-up pickup truck bumping trap music.

Before the officer even approaches, the driver puts both hands on the steering wheel, in plain sight. He smiles and calls the officer “sir,” nervously attempting to appear friendly. For black viewers it’s a familiar scene, all the way down to the driver rolling his eyes as he announces to the patrol that his license and registration are in the glove compartment and he’s “just gonna reach over and open it on up, OK?”

That’s where the role reversal ends. The cop returns to his patrol car where he has to radio in for permission to unlock his firearm. Meanwhile the driver puts on a Seventh Kalvary mask and sprays the windshield with bullets, nearly killing the officer.

His shooting sets the vengeance mission in motion, this time. But Sister Night, who dons a nun’s habit complete with black tunic and rosary beads, has been a revenge missionary for years, at least since she was shot on the “White Night.” And she is so wedded to her way of life that she doesn’t want anything to interfere with it.

When Angela learns that she, in fact, is a descendant of a survivor of the Tulsa Race Riot, she wants nothing to do with that trauma or him. Her past is a mystery to her and that, seemingly, is the way she likes it.

On the contrary, her counterpart on the force, Looking Glass, has a past that he can’t escape and a trauma that he relives every day. He was an actual missionary in Hoboken, N.J., on 11/2 but survived despite being within the blast zone. Nevertheless, he saw thousands killed and later learned it was the long, tentacled arms of a monstrous squid that fell from the sky and snuffed out those people’s lives. Akin to a natural disaster, there was no one to blame for the interspatial attack and no way to seek retribution.

So for those unable to make someone pay for the worst day of their lives, or those resigned to accepting injustice, the show’s answer to how they go on is by living in fear.

Wade frequently runs squid-attack, bomb-shelter drills and wraps his head in reflectetine to protect his gray matter from psychic blasts. He leads a support group for other survivors and their families in which he professes to have overcome his fear. But the truth is, he’s terrified. He always thinks an invasion is imminent and even when told that his reality isn’t real, he’s no less scared.

Watchmen spins the popular notion of black-white accepted realities around. It puts the fear — of being victimized, of witnessing violent death, of living with injustice — that’s a daily part of black reality on a white character who feels powerless against it; and puts the power — to hurt people, to deny the past, to control what people do, say, and know — that whites are historically used to on a black character who at times seems drunk with it.

That begins to change as Episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being,” shows Angela finally reckoning with the truth of her legacy, one of an inability to “trust in the law” or in white people. After taking the Nostalgia pills that hold memories of her previously unknown grandfather, Angela experiences the maddening effects of racism that he did as a cop in 1930s-40s New York City.

But even the grandfather, Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), is a form of payback. He embodies the show’s attempt at adding racial balance to the lopsidedly white world of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and of early comic books, by making one of their most integral characters, Hooded Justice, black.

The beauty of creator Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is varied. It lies not only in the artistic production that makes clever use of camera angles like point-of-view, bird’s eye view, and worm’s eye view as storytelling techniques familiar to comic book readers or in the thoughtful, creative adaptation of source material into a story for these times. It’s also in his willingness to take on our America’s most intractable vices and imagine how a parallel society might deal with them.

Because some of the biggest problems of the day are racism, white supremacy, and terrorism, and Watchmen tackles them, Lindelof has been criticized as a “social justice warrior.” To a certain extent, some criticisms may be fair as, for example, there aren’t many black people who need reminding of the numerous atrocities that blacks in this generation, let alone that of their ancestors, have suffered at the hands of whites, particularly white cops. What black New Yorker or Angeleno who lived through the 1990s can look at a broken broom stick and not think of the NYPD officers who used one to sodomize Abner Louima, or see a billy club and not be reminded of LAPD officers who cracked them against Rodney King’s back, legs, and everywhere? But if Lindelof just figured that out, so be it.

Perhaps not many others, though, could make a statement about the callous denial of racist violence and the unjust society that existed for blacks in 20th century Tulsa by staging an all-black production of the musical Oklahoma. It happens in the episode called “It’s Summer, and We’re Running Out of Ice.” The title comes from “Pore Jud is Daid,” a song from the musical in which Jud’s friend pretends that he would be missed if he killed himself. In the episode, Judd watches the play with his wife while the cast, traditionally all-white, dances with dreadlocks, twists, and natural hair bouncing as they sing Oklahoma’s praises.

“We know we belong to the land/ And the land we belong to is grand/ And when we say, Yeow! A yip-i-o-e-ay/ We’re only saying You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma/ Oklahoma OK.”

In real life, it took Oklahoma eighty years before its state legislature produced an official report even acknowledging the 1921 race riot.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Sufiya Abdur-Rahman

Written by

Writer, professor, wife, mother, Freedom Fighter. @MrsAbolitionist

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Sufiya Abdur-Rahman

Written by

Writer, professor, wife, mother, Freedom Fighter. @MrsAbolitionist

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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