HBO's 'Watchmen' Gives Us A Hero Forged From The Fires Of The Tulsa Massacre
It's something out of a nightmare: Black people shot dead in the street. Mothers clutching their children and seeking shelter as airplanes drop bombs around them. Businesses set on fire as both a town and its residents go up in flames.
This was the opening of HBO's "Watchmen," a sequel to the groundbreaking comic book maxiseries by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Ben Shapiro snidely tweeted "Wakanda isn't real" in response to all the excitement over the Black Panther movie. (Shapiro probably doesn't like seeing black people happy.) The futuristic African nation is the product of fiction -- whattaya know! -- but the Tulsa, Oklahoma, terrorist attack of 1921 was real.
White mobs descended on the Greenwood district, at the time a black community so well-off it was known as "Black Wall Street." Property damage was estimated at $32 million in today's money. About 10,000 black residents were left homeless. They destroyed more than 35 square blocks and murdered as many as 300 people.
The Memorial Day massacre started because a 19-year-old black man, Dick Rowland, tripped while entering an elevator. As he fell, he grabbed the arm of the white elevator operator, Sarah Page. She screamed, and a white store clerk accused him of attempted rape. The situation escalated from there. That might sound like the Star Trek planet where they kill you for running on the grass, but it was very much reality in Jim Crow America -- the almost 100-year period where "free" black people lived in constant terror of violating capricious rules of "racial etiquette." Even accidental "slip-ups" could result in death.
This is how historian Ronald L.F. Davis describes the oppression black Americans lived under in the land of the "free":
The whole intent of Jim Crow etiquette boiled down to one simple rule: blacks must demonstrate their inferiority to whites by actions, words, and manners. Laws supported this racist code of behaviour -- or whenever racial customs started to weaken or break down in practice -- as they did during the Reconstruction era. When the laws were weakly or slowly applied, whites resorted to violence against blacks to reinforce the customs and standards of behaviour. Indeed, whites commonly justified lynchings and the horrible murders of blacks during the Jim Crow era as defensive actions taken in response to black violations of the colour line and rules of racial etiquette.
Perhaps the mob believed Greenwood needed to learn a lesson. The district had grown so prosperous that a black teen felt bold enough to trip.
After "Watchmen" aired Sunday, people -- by whom I mean white people -- were stunned to learn that life in Oklahoma was not always a musical comedy. Black folks share posts on Facebook about the incident every year but no gorillas or lions were harmed, so it might not have seemed relevant. Series star Regina King tried to help out with some social media history lessons.
She's awesome. The woman has an Academy Award and she's taking the time to educate your dumb asses.
I was skeptical of a "Watchmen" TV series. Teenage SER enjoyed the original comic's deconstruction of the superhero genre. But the sexual violence and misogyny doesn't age well. The anti-hero Rorschach reads in retrospect like a Donald Trump supporter. I feared the HBO sequel would glamorize white male grievance like the Joker film. I'm happy to admit I was wrong. Series creator Damon Lindelof turns the superhero narrative on its head. He deconstructs Moore's deconstructionism, and I'm here for it. He presents a world where lawless thugs target the police. A former cop becomes a masked vigilante in order to fight back. Forget the image in your mind because the vigilante is a black woman and the thugs are white supremacists. Instead of white hoods, they wear versions of Rorschach's famous mask.
Watchmen S01E01 || Ranch Gun Battle Scene - Sister night Fight Scene || New MovieClips www.youtube.com
Lindelof's "Watchmen" centers blackness in a way I've never seen in a gritty, noirish "superhero" story. Black people are too often depicted as the "other." We are the common thugs or bug-eyed pimps in Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One." A white man must rise up against the rot that has infected American cities thanks to soft-on-crime liberal indulgence. The antecedent of such stories is 1915's The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
The incels could barely handle a woman with a lightsaber. "Watchmen" defies their expectations even more with a black woman as the series protagonist. King is brilliant as Angela Abar, who kicks ass as the outlaw vigilante Sister Night. In the show's alternate reality, Robert Redford is president, and black people received their 40 acres and a mule. The "Redfordations" are greatly resented -- even in a world where horrific events like the Tulsa massacre still occurred.
White Americans might not have learned about Tulsa in school, but I believe the ancestral memory of such violence and brutality doesn't go away. It feeds the fears of imagined migrant caravan invasions. What happened in the past can repeat itself in the future, and the victimizers can easily become the victims. Last year, Charles Blow interviewed Olivia Hooker, a 103-year-old survivor of the Tulsa attacks. Her family lost everything they worked so hard to build, despite crushing obstacles. She vividly recalls hiding in her own home from people who would've thought nothing of killing her. She was only six years old.
HOOKER: They took a hatchet to my sisters' piano. They poured oil all over my grandmother's bed. They took all the beautiful biscuits out of the oven and threw them out in the mud. They didn't appreciate you having anything classical. They took all the silverware that Momma had just got for Christmas, coffee pot, teapot — you know, that kind of beautiful stuff. If anything looked precious, they took it.... I used to scream at night. It took me years to get over the shock of seeing people be so horrible to people who had done them no wrong.
And outside was America.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.