HBO’s highly-anticipated Watchmen series from Damon Lindelof premiered with a bang Sunday night. It opened up with what seems to be one of the only depictions of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 on television.
The series, which is toplined by Regina King, is set in Tulsa in an alternate-history version of America. Considered to be a new story and sequel of sorts to the graphic novel, it chronicles police officers like King’s Angela Abar, who must go vigilante and protect their identities as they fight against the reemergence of a deadly white supremacist group.
The opening scene depicts the Tulsa Race Riots, also known as the Tulsa Massacre and the Greenwood Massacre. White residents in Tulsa attacked Greenwood and Black Wall Street, the wealthiest Black community in America at the time. Called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” the attack was not only made on the ground but by air as well.
NPR gave a primer of the event in 2018 when they told the story of the last survivor of the riots.
Greenwood may have been a haven for African-Americans, but the state of Oklahoma had strict laws limiting the rights of Black people. Schools, hospitals, trains, stores, restaurants, even public phone booths were segregated and miscegenation was a felony. Lynchings were not uncommon and by 1920, the Ku Klux Klan was reemerging in the state.
When Dick Rowland, a young Black man, was accused of assaulting a young white woman in an elevator in May 1921, things escalated quickly. He was arrested and word spread that white mobs were headed to the courthouse, intending to lynch him.
The mobs were met by a group of armed Black men, many of whom were World War I veterans. After a confrontation, shots were fired, and thus began a day-long assault on Greenwood. In less than 24 hours, the white mobs destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses. They set fire to schools, churches, libraries, and movie theaters, leveling entire city blocks.
Watchmen is unflinching in the portrayal of the riots and uses it as a springboard for its storytelling. The scene chronicles a Black family and a little Black boy who gets separated from his parents and witnesses their death. Spoiler alert: By the end of this episode, it is figured out that an older version of this little boy appears in the series as a principal character.
Lindelof explained his reasoning for the setting and choosing to begin with the race riots:
“That was the first time that I heard about Black Wall Street and what happened in Tulsa in ’21, and was sort of ashamed and confused, and embarrassed that I had never heard about it before. When I started thinking about what Watchmen was going to be, trying to think about in the original source material, the book was highly political. It was about what was happening in American culture at the time even though it was being presented by two British artists. What, in 2019, is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States? It just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America,” he said after the pilot screened at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour.
The pilot’s director, Nicole Kassell, traveled to Tulsa and the Greenwood neighborhood where she spoke to local residents. She studied the history of the massacre, specifically The Burning, a book by Tim Madigan on the events. “I pulled out the moments that struck me, and my team did as well, and so we kind of made a short list of the vignettes that you see. That wasn’t in the script originally, that kind of detail,” she told Decider. “I kind of imagined it in real time: this is the journey of this boy and his parents from this theater, down the street, around the corner, and into a garage.”
Each moment in the opening scene was choreographed with the background actors. “It was so invaluable, because it prepared people both, again, physically and emotionally,” said Kassell.
Coincidentally, the scenes were also filmed on the 98th anniversary of the massacre. “I asked Damon to write a letter to the cast and crew on behalf of us, just to honor and thank people for what we were asking them to do because it was enormously challenging and upsetting, whether you were playing a victim or a perpetrator. So it was very, very profound, but we took it on with the most reverence and gravity everyone can,” the director added.
The series is receiving nearly universal acclaim from critics and the opening scene, in particular, has struck a chord with viewers on social media.
The first 10 minutes of #WatchmenHBO is a flashback to the Tulsa Race Riots Massacre.
Hard to watch knowing this actually happened in 1921. Less than 100 years ago.
— Isaac Hayes III (@IsaacHayes3) October 21, 2019
Yes, the Tulsa Race Riots featured an airplane dropping explosives on Black people. The only American race riot with air-to-ground attacks. To date. #WatchmenHBO
— Brandon David Wilson (@Geniusbastard) October 21, 2019
— Tom & Lorenzo (@tomandlorenzo) October 21, 2019
With one fell swoop, people are now googling Bass Reeves and the Tulsa/Black Wall Street riots and finding out that…yes…these are based on real events.
— Cheo Hodari Coker (@cheo_coker) October 21, 2019
Watchmen airs Sundays on HBO.
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