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A people's history

Watchmen shines a spotlight on Tulsa’s violent past

Regina King in Watchmen


The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was dramatized by a major cable network for the first time in history on Oct. 20. This was episode one of HBO’s Watchmen, which debuted to 1.5-million viewers, putting Tulsa and its dark past in the international spotlight. 

Inspired by the late-1980s comics by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons, the series is set in an alternate-universe Tulsa, September 2019—but the opening scene of the film depicts, in vivid and disturbing detail, the all-too-real violence baked into the DNA of our city.  

“I know that Damon [Lindelof, showrunner] felt it very important to begin this new iteration of Watchmen with the Race Massacre,” said Tim Blake Nelson, the Tulsa native who plays superhero Looking Glass. “At the same time, I also know that he had no small measure of anxiety surrounding the fact that he was a white guy telling it, and that caused a really admirable level of care in his approach to it. … There was a sort of collective reverence for what they saw as the privilege of getting to share the truth of what had occurred with such a broad audience.”  

Lindelof uses Tulsa’s violent past to provide context for the show’s present, as a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry has declared war on minorities and the police who enforce reparations for victims of racial injustice. 

“We start out in the show with this really interesting reversal of the dynamic that has inflicted our country recently,” Nelson said. “You’re taught early on in this show, in the first scene that takes place in the present, that you better watch out for nuances and complexities in this world, because there’s going to be no clear right and wrong. You’re going to encounter all the complexities and frailties of human interaction.”
But can a major TV series, filmed offsite in rebate-rich Georgia, do right by a traumatized community nearly 100 years after the fact?

The day after the episode aired, Kristi Williams was part of the search for mass graves from the 1921 Massacre at Oaklawn Cemetary. Williams, vice chair of the African-American Affairs Commission for the City of Tulsa and member of the Tulsa Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee, said the committee had “to fight just to get them to search in places where eyewitness accounts have said” bodies were located. While Tulsa history has long been buried, Watchmen presents a unique opportunity for public excavation. 

“I thought, ‘Finally our story is out to the world,’” Williams said. “That was important for me, even if it was still fictional in some ways. It gave people something to search for, to seek more, and so I thought that was important. … It went deep. It was raw truth in a way, as far as the severity of what has happened to Tulsa.”

Williams described Greenwood’s ongoing fight against gentrification, Tulsa’s failing equality indicators and issues surrounding police brutality. Watchmen imagines Tulsa repaired after the Massacre, but even then the fight against violence and racism is an ongoing issue. To this end, Williams points to what she considers the show’s greatest strength: honesty.

“First and foremost, tell the truth no matter how uncomfortable it is—the more uncomfortable it is, I think you should say it,” Williams said. “We have veered away from that and I think it’s just so important. That’s the only way we’re going to find growth is in those uncomfortable conversations, and uncomfortable experiences. So, I think anyone can tell that story and just be honest about it.”

Nelson said the key to that authenticity was to not overthink it. “As soon as you get caught up as an actor in the ‘importance’ of a role, you’re trapping yourself,” he said. “Damon’s writing is just so good that all I really had to do was find truth in our collaboration with this character and let the cultural significance take care of itself.”

However the series unfolds, it’s important to acknowledge the Race Massacre was not simply two days in 1921—it’s an ongoing cycle of violence and oppression in Tulsa. Fiction cannot right wrongs, but sometimes that’s what it takes for people to listen and for change to begin. 

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