Monday, July 13, 2020
July 13, 2020: AmericanStudying Watchmen: Tulsa
[Along with Bosch, another acclaimed show I’ve finally had a chance to check out during lockdown is HBO’s Watchmen, and it lived up to the hype. Among its many strengths, I’d emphasize in particular its remarkable depth when it comes to American history, and this week will focus on five sides to those themes and threads. Leading up to a special weekend post sharing student perspectives on both the show and its graphic novel source material!]
[NB. SPOILERS will abound all week—go check the show out and then come back to read these posts and share your thoughts!]
On two small details that make a stunning scene even better, and why the scene needs further contextualization nonetheless.
Because I watched Watchmen nearly a year after it initially aired (I don’t get HBO, so I always catch up on HBO shows well after the fact), I knew from scholarly Twitter and other commentaries that the series opens with an extended sequence set during the 1921 Tulsa massacre (even if you haven’t seen the show yet, I recommend watching the multi-part clip hyperlinked under “an extended sequence”; it’s the series’ opening so it’s not really spoiling anything). I can only imagine how stunned I would have been to watch that scene with no foreknowledge; I’ve long lamented that histories like Tulsa’s (and the many, many other such massacres across American history, on which more below) are largely absent from our collective memories, and one central reason is that there have been very few pop culture portrayals (John Singleton’s 1997 film Rosewood is an exception, but even that film has been mostly ignored since its release). But even knowing it was coming, I was blown away by the raw realism of this sequence, from the senseless individual murders to the aerial bombardment to the sheer terror of the African American protagonists facing this horrific communal terrorism.
Great TV and film sequences are made from small details as much as the big picture, and two in particular stand out to me in Watchmen’s bravura Tulsa sequence. The more obvious but still crucial one is to begin with the youthful protagonist watching a silent film, a fictional one depicting a real historical figure, the legendary African American US Marshal (and likely inspiration for the character of the Lone Ranger) Bass Reeves. That choice not only immediately contrasts mythic pop culture ideals to the unfolding brutal reality outside of the theater, but also implicitly points audiences toward a very different cultural text: the white supremacist silent film Birth of a Nation. More understated and unspoken still, but even more crucial, is the choice to have that young African American protagonist’s father dressed in his WWI uniform; without saying a word, that choice links this massacre to the Red Summer of 1919, and the tragic and awful gaps between the service of WWI African American soldiers and the realities of the discrimination and violence they faced on the homefront.
But should those words have somehow been said, those histories more overtly spoken? On the one hand, it’s obviously not a dramatic TV show’s job to depict many different histories, or even contextualize one history as fully as scholarship might; again, just featuring this Tulsa sequence sets Watchmen apart from most other American pop cultural works. But at the same time, one potential downside to depicting Tulsa’s extremes (like that aerial bombardment, which did stand out from other massacres) is that it can make it seem like the event was a one-off or an aberration. To put it bluntly, racial massacres were between the Civil War and (at least) the 1940s much more the norm than the exception; indeed, if we see such massacres as lynchings writ large and thus link them to the lynching epidemic as a whole, it becomes even more difficult to see events like Tulsa as anything other than a constant presence and threat for African Americans. I don’t know that there’s any way a single TV show could (or should) depict those overarching histories—but at the very least it’s crucial that we follow up this stunning sequence with further work to make clear just how tragically typical such events were.
Next WatchmenStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the show you’d share?