HBO’s Watchmen takes place in an alternate version of America’s present, but it begins with an all-too-real incident from the nation’s past. The first episode of the Peabody Award-winning series, created by Damon Lindelof and based on Alan Moore’s seminal comic book series, opens in Tulsa, Okla., on May 31, 1921, the date of the infamous Black Wall Street massacre. On that day, armed mobs of white men descended on the city’s predominantly black Greenwood District — dubbed “Black Wall Street” because of its prosperity — and razed the area, burning, looting and killing. The massacre became one of the most devastating acts of racial violence in American history, and, for a long time, one of the least discussed.
But Watchmen thrust that violent chapter in Oklahoma’s history back into the public discourse, serving as the inciting incident in a narrative that speaks directly to the legacy of racial injustice in America. And that narrative starting point looks positively prescient in light of President Donald Trump’s announced decision to hold his first campaign rally in months in Tulsa on June 19. That date is no accident: Celebrated as Juneteenth or Freedom Day, it’s a commemoration of the end of slavery following the Civil War. The parallels between Watchmen’s world and our own were immediately noted on Twitter.
I was already starting to get serious Watchmen vibes about the current events in the US, and now Trump is doing his first rally in Tulsa? pic.twitter.com/ud8cDkfo6z— Tom (@Tom_Critchley_) June 11, 2020
First rally is going to be in Tulsa on Juneteenth? That sounds like episode 10 of Watchmen. https://t.co/CB3rG0kHj5— Mark Wynns (@screenwindow) June 10, 2020
If you think it's a coincidence Trump's first hate rally in two months is in Tulsa after everyone learned about the 1921 Tulsa bombing while binging Watchmen during lockdown, Stephen Miller has a wall to sell you.— Patrick S. Tomlinson (@stealthygeek) June 11, 2020
Trump going straight for the Klan vote. His first no mask Covid MAGA rally will be in Tulsa on Junteenth the 99th anniversary of the bloodiest massacre in black history. If you saw Watchmen on HBO this is absolutely incredible. He's going to burn it all down.— Sandi Bachom (@sandibachom) June 10, 2020
The Trump campaign is going to find out that Tulsa is a more progressive city than they think, in part because of its terrible history of racial violence. Masks in the (fictional) city of Watchmen, what could go wrong? https://t.co/xfWQZ1Bs9l— Dan Fagin (@danfagin) June 10, 2020
Lindelof, who is well-known to eschew social media, has yet to respond to recent headlines. But since Watchmen premiered in October, he has been very vocal about why he chose to start the show with the Tulsa massacre. “It was built on this incredible, horrible taking of treasure and destruction of an African American utopia in 1921 Oklahoma,” he told NPR last year, admitting that like many white Americans, he was unaware of Black Wall Street or its awful end and crediting author Ta-Nehisi Coates with educating him. “It felt like a superhero origin story in some weird way. It felt like Krypton, you know? It felt like the destruction of a world.”
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment last week, Watchmen star Regina King also connected the past and present, pointing out how the legacy of Tulsa is reflected in contemporary racial violence like the killing of George Floyd. “Look, we're talking about 1921, this happened. Cut to [today], same s***'s going down,” said the actress, who plays Tulsa police officer Angela Abar, aka Sister Night. “There's the same mentality happening. We're not having another massacre, but it feels like we're having little mini-massacres all around.”
Over the course of nine Watchmen episodes, Angela uncovers a white supremacist conspiracy that has its roots in the Black Wall Street massacre. The show ends with a victory of sorts, but the specter of that atrocity still haunts the characters. And it looms large in our reality as Trump’s June 19 rally approaches. Current Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt didn’t address the state’s fraught history in his official statement, instead saying: “I am excited to welcome President Trump to Tulsa next week and for Oklahomans to show the world how we are a Top 10 state.” Trump campaign senior advisor Katrina Pierson struck an equally upbeat note in her official statement provided to Politico: “As the party of Lincoln, Republicans are proud of the history of Juneteenth, which is the anniversary of the last reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
But California Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris made a point of invoking the historical record, writing on Twitter that the Trump campaign’s choice of location “isn't just a wink to white supremacists — he's throwing them a welcome home party.”
This isn't just a wink to white supremacists—he's throwing them a welcome home party. https://t.co/lUXpnUoFQU— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 11, 2020
Likewise, Rep. Al Green of Texas described the announced rally as “overt racism from the highest office in the land,” and Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts tweeted: “99 years ago a white mob massacred hundreds of Black people in the Greenwood District of Tulsa. The most racist President of my lifetime knows exactly what message he’s sending when he goes there on Juneteenth.”
Meanwhile, with new viewers finding Watchmen on HBO and Blu-ray and learning about the Tulsa massacre for what may be the first time, Lindelof’s series is poised to remain as eternally relevant as Moore’s comic book. Accepting the show’s Peabody Award earlier this week, he dedicated the honor to “the memory of the lost lives of Greenwood — not victims, but mothers and sons and fathers and daughters and doctors and lawyers and journalists and veterans.” And while Lindelof has frequently expressed doubt about a second season, King is ready to suit up as Sister Night again.
“I feel like 'Never say never,'" the actress told us. "I think we all as castmates feel like if Damon leads, we'll follow. [Because if he comes back], we know that it's going to be smart, we know that it's going to be thought-provoking and still be entertaining. That's not an easy thing [to accomplish]. Watchmen was historical, it was genre-bending. … Anything that you can think of that you like in entertainment, we had a bit of it. And that's not easy to do.”
Watchmen is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Max and is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.
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