Revisiting “Watchmen,” a New Kind of Superhero Epic

Regina King as Angela Abar/Sister Night in Watchmen (Photo credit: Mark Hill)

As mass protests spread across the United States and the world to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people murdered by the police, Watchmen has gained a new resonance. HBO’s critically acclaimed miniseries has been evoked to further underscore the deep, ongoing relationship between police forces in the United States and white supremacists. (In fact, the show has been discussed so much that HBO made it free to watch from June 19 through June 22.) Pop culture, including television and movies, often functions as propaganda (or copaganda) for police forces, making cops—who are usually white and male—the main characters, the good guys, the heroes. Copaganda television, in particular, has become a cornerstone of U.S. popular culture: Think about the Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS franchises. NYPD Blue, Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, Cops, Hawaii Five-0, and other cop-focused dramas play daily on multiple TV networks across not only the United States, but the world.

These police procedurals are incredibly popular, and they’re also incredibly effective in shaping our cultural relationship to and our understanding of the police. This isn’t a coincidence: Culture critic Alyssa Rosenberg’s groundbreaking 2016 series in the Washington Post found that the police have had a long history of collaborating with Hollywood executives to make sure they’re portrayed positively, even withholding filming permits from television production teams that don’t cooperate with their mandate. Thanks to this decades-long partnership, law enforcement has effectively controlled how it’s portrayed onscreen, which has had some immediate consequences. “Many of the shows proved to be hits with viewers, and this symbiotic relationship spawned numerous collaborations that would go on to create a one-sided view of law and order, with the voices of the policed going unheard,” Carol A. Stabile wrote in a recent piece for the Conversation.

Take Cops, for instance, which the Paramount Network recently canceled after 32 seasons. Though it’s no longer on the air, the damage has already been done. “Research shows that with such a narrow range of Black characters and personalities in primetime, the negative perceptions and distorted images presented by shows like Cops, create an atmosphere of suspicion and desensitizes and conditions audiences to view police misconduct and harsher punishments as acceptable,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color Of Change, said in a press release. “Since its debut in 1989, Fox, Cops producers, and corporate advertisers have built a profit model around distorted and dehumanizing portrayals of Black Americans and the criminal justice system.” As Robinson mentioned, many of the perpetrators of crime in these shows are Black, Latinx, or other racialized immigrant communities, who are criminalized by the show, while the police are valorized, and a portrayal of hyper-masculinity and heavy-handedness with violence is celebrated and always justified.

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On one hand, “the overwhelming mountain of cop shows amounts to a decades-long cultural education in who deserves attention, and whose perspective counts most,” Kathryn VanArendonk wrote in a recent piece for Vulture. “In stories of American crime, TV teaches us that cops are the characters we should care about.” On the other hand, Watchmen quietly flipped the script. While the beginning of the season appears to take the same copaganda approach (almost as if to trick viewers), the show slowly disentangles the sinister connections between the police and white supremacy, as involving both individuals and the fabric of the institution. Watchmen, which is adapted from a DC comic series, offers a new kind of traumatic origin story for superhero Will Reeves’s a.k.a. Hooded Justice’s (portrayed as a child by Danny Boyd Jr., a young man by Jovan Adepo, and an older man as Louis Gossett, Jr.): He’s a child when white supremacists storm Greenwood, his prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma; burn down the entire community; and kill his parents in front of him. While this has all the makings of a fabled or mythical inception, it’s not.

The Tulsa Massacre is one of the worst incidents of mass racist violence in U.S. history; approximately 300 people were killed and thousands more were made homeless when almost an entire neighborhood was burned down. As police officers watched and others partook, a white mob brutally murdered hundreds of African Americans in Greenwood, looted their shops, and burned down numerous buildings. Reeves narrowly escapes the massacre, hidden in a wooden crate in a cart that his parents manage to hide him in, but the trauma of the incident remains with him. Tying Hooded Justice’s origin story to an actual event in U.S. history gives the series gravity and does what no other superhero story has been able to: use real life instead of metaphor to make meta commentary about social justice.

While comics like X-Men may use mutants and the ideological battle between Professor X and Magneto as an allegory for the civil rights movement and its leaders, Watchmen leans completely into the idea that reality can influence fantasy, particularly as it relates to the police. While Superman’s origin story begins with the destruction of his fictional world, Krypton, Hooded Justice’s real world is destroyed, setting him on a deeper path toward seeking vengeance and getting justice. Greenwood, which Booker T. Washington referred to as “Black Wall Street,” was a prosperous and self-sufficient Black community that had divested from the white-dominated economy, causing it to be the target of growing hatred by the white residents of Tulsa. The state of Oklahoma intentionally covered up this act of terrorism: Surviving Black residents were threatened into remaining silent, white newspapers deliberately didn’t cover the massacre, and the only two Black newspapers in Oklahoma were bombed.

Thanks to historians like Scott Ellsworth, who released Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 in 1982, we have a more comprehensive understanding of the Tulsa Massacre, though it still took the state of Oklahoma 80 years to release an official report of what happened. Yet Watchmen opens on the Tulsa Massacre, making it—and the police force’s complicity in the violence—the literal anchor of the show. This helps bring the Tulsa Massacre back into popular memory. (After the episode aired, Google searches for the Tulsa Massacre surged.) “Tulsa became the foundation of a new interpretation of Watchmen, reframing a traditional superhero origin story born not from the aftermath of an exploding fictional planet, but from the ashes of a very real place in Oklahoma that was erased from history 100 years ago,” Damon Lindelof, the creator of Watchmen, said in his recent Peabody Awards acceptance speech.

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In a recent interview, Regina King, who portrays protagonist Angela Abar a.k.a. Sister Knight, also drew parallels between the show and what’s currently happening in the world. “Same shit’s going down,” King told Yahoo. “There’s the same mentality happening. We’re not having another massacre, but it feels like we’re having little mini-massacres all around.” In Watchmen, Hooded Justice, the only Black police officer in his squad, finds out the hard way about the state of policing in America. Soon after joining the force, he tries to arrest a white man who throws a petrol bomb through the window of a Jewish deli. At the station, a fellow officer takes over the arrest, making the white power hand sign, which Reeves doesn’t yet know the meaning of. When the perp is released, Reeves is outraged, but a fellow officer tells him to drop it.

Later that night, in a terrifying and highly triggering scene, Reeves’s fellow officers ambush him and beat him. They cover his face with a hood and nearly lynch him, pulling him down from the tree seconds away from his death. Reeves, traumatized and walking home with the noose still around his neck, witnesses another crime and knows he needs to intervene, but he covers his face with the hood because he now knows that racism will supersede him trying to do good. Thus, Hooded Justice is born, except going forward, he paints the visible part of his face with white paint so that people think he’s white. With this disguise, he takes justice into his own hands, eventually uncovering a sinister plot by the white supremacist cops.

While issues of masked identities ripple throughout the show, there’s a blurred line between villain and hero, which is emphasized through the usual superhero moralist discussion of vigilantism. But for Hooded Justice, taking matters into his own hands is his only option for justice. In Watchmen, as in the real world, the efficacy of law and justice is consistently betrayed by their racist foundations. Reeves communicates this sinister plot to Angela Abar (King), his granddaughter, who begins the show as a masked cop, but who slowly unravels the police force’s white supremacist underbelly. When Abar finds a white hood in a secret closet of her close friend and the (liberal-appearing) police chief, the revelation begins. It’s a spine-chilling moment, but it begins a quest in which she discovers that some of her fellow officers are actually members of the Seventh Kalvary, the show’s version of the Ku Klux Klan.

These police officers are aided by a liberal-presenting senator, Joseph “Joe” Keene Jr. (James Wolk), who eventually says, “It’s extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now.” Keene’s belief is shared among white people as a response to restorative justice measures such as affirmative action, and is a sentiment kindled by white supremacist groups all over the world. Though Watchmen is a superhero epic, it’s not difficult to believe that these events could take place in our real lives, particularly because of the well-known overlap between policing and white supremacist groups. While the senseless murders of Black people are evidence in themselves, there have been numerous examples of police officers attending KKK rallies, working with and protecting white supremacist groups, and surveilling and being aggressive toward activists.

Unlike any other superhero television show or movie, Watchmen doesn’t shy away from highlighting the cruel foundations of the United States: white supremacy, lynching, mass racist murder.

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In 2018, court documents revealed that California police worked with white supremacists to pursue antiracist protesters in order to prosecute them, while trying to hide the identities of members of the neo-Nazi group. This became public knowledge after an encounter during a June 2016 rally in Sacramento, California, in which members of the Traditionalist Worker Party (a white supremacist group) attacked antiracist protestors, stabbing and beating them; the cops arrested the antiracist protestors. In 2019, police officers in Oregon allowed members of a right-wing militia to “help them arrest” an anti-fascist activist. At a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, police were accused of standing aside while Nazis attacked antiracist protestors. A Black counterprotestor in Charlottesville who had been beaten by Nazis was charged with a felony—the same charge as the men who beat him. And in the recent protests, a cop in Salem, Oregon, was caught on film warning a group of armed white men, members of a white nationalist group, to get inside before they teargassed Black Lives Matter protesters, “so we don’t look like we’re playing favorites.”

So Watchmen had plenty of examples to draw from in recent and older history, but nobody could have predicted just how poignant it would be for what was to come in 2020. With the help of Black creatives, writers, and actors, a real story about America was told, one that needs no metaphor. As David Dennis Jr. wrote in a 2019 article for Level,  “Watchmen’s magic is understanding the moments when imagination isn’t always needed—because the real stories have already told themselves.” As Tulsa’s Black community commemorated the 99th anniversary of this horrifying event, an eruption of resistance against racism simultaneously spread throughout the country. Protestors demonstrating against police violence were met with even more police brutality. While protestors shared on-the-ground videos of police violence, national media outlets shared a deliberately sanitized picture, images of cops kneeling and walking with protestors.

This duality of good cop/bad cop continued for days after the protests first began: In some instances, cops were filmed doing secret white power hand signs after taking a knee with protestors—a sign that many onlookers recognized because they’d seen it on Watchmen. Unlike any other superhero television show or movie, Watchmen doesn’t shy away from highlighting the cruel foundations of the United States: white supremacy, lynching, and mass racist murder. White supremacy isn’t disguised in a metaphor of human superiority over mutants; the show depicts actual white supremacy, played by white people, using the words, imagery, and violence that white people have enacted on Black people throughout history. And by doing so, Watchmen reinvents what a superhero story can be—a means to conscientize, mobilize, illuminate, and defy our real world and its very real racism.

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by Mary Fawzy
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Mary Fawzy is a food, politics and culture writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. You can read her work at purpleturnips.com