‘Watchmen’ reminded of Tulsa race massacre ahead of Trump’s rally


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Dr. Olivia J. Hooker was six years old when angry mobs destroyed her family’s home and business during the worst race riot in U.S. history.

USA TODAY

President Donald Trump’s initial choice of June 19 and Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the site for his next rally has brought new charges of insensitivity for a man criticized frequently for his actions and comments concerning race over the years. 

Citing a request by African-American friends and supporters, last week Trump  rescheduled the rally to Saturday to avoid Juneteenth, the anniversary of the final state declaration of slave emancipation in 1865. However, the event will still be held at the Oklahoma site of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, considered by some historical sources to be the single worst incident of racial violence in the nation’s history.

As many learning about these events for the first time seek out reference materials, they might also watch HBO’s critically acclaimed “Watchmen” (also available on Hulu), which premiered last October and seems almost prescient about the massacre. The ambitious miniseries, an adaptation of a revered 1980s comic-book series that explores racism and the criminal justice system, was honored June 10 with a Peabody Award.

Masked cop Angela Abar (Regina King) leads the effort against the white supremacist group Seventh Kavalry in “Watchmen.” (Photo: MARK HILL/HBO)

In an acceptance video, Oscar winner Regina King, who plays Angela Abar/Sister Night, noted the importance of shining a light on a tragedy that’s long been out of sight to so many.

“This show not only evoked thought (and) conversation, but exposed history that had been forgotten, all while we were able to entertain,” she said.

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More TV depictions are on the way. NBA star Russell Westbrook, who played for the Oklahoma City Thunder for 11 years and is now with the Houston Rockets, is producing a documentary series about the massacre, due next year, that will be directed by three-time Emmy winner Stanley Nelson.

The nine-episode “Watchmen,” adapted by “Lost” and “The Leftovers” creator Damon Lindelof, opens with the depiction of the two day (May 31 and June 1, 1921) real-life destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, which had earned the nickname “Black Wall Street” because it was one of the wealthiest African-American communities in the country. As many as 300 Black people are estimated to have been killed.

The week before Trump announced the rally location on June 10, “Watchmen” was mentioned by USA TODAY and others as a resource for those seeking to learn more about race and criminal justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.

Although “Watchmen” was already relevant for its thoughtful exploration of racism and policing, Trump’s choice of Tulsa gave the show’s depiction of the massacre a greater historic link to current events. (HBO is not continuing the series after Lindelof said he didn’t plan to be part of a second season.) 

Oscar winner Regina King, seen at the 2020 Academy Awards, stars in HBO’s ‘Watchmen.’ (Photo: Dan MacMedan, Dan MacMedan-USA TODAY)

The series opens in 1921 Tulsa, with the Greenwood community under siege by white men in Ku Klux Klan-like white robes who burn stores with torches, loot clothing and throw a Molotov cocktail into a floral shop. Others shoot Black people while a biplane rains gunfire and firebombs from above. 

As a Black couple smuggles their young son out of the pandemonium, he sees a car dragging two lifeless bodies through the street. The action then jumps to 2019, when masked police hide their identities as they fight a modern-day version of the Klan called the Seventh Kavalry.

Even though the police are pitted against white supremacists, “Watchmen” presents plenty of reasons to question their practices and motivations.

More: Trump stirs anger with plans for Juneteenth rally in Tulsa, site of huge massacre of African Americans

USA TODAY television critic Kelly Lawler suggested “Watchmen” as an alternative to traditional TV depictions of policing.

“What makes “Watchmen” rise above most series that try to add nuance to policing is that it lulls you into thinking the cops are heroic protagonists, only to reveal that they are the villains, and prejudice is woven into the fabric of the department,” she wrote. 

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Characters of HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ including Regina King, Jean Smart and Jeremy Irons talk about their favorite bits of alternative history in the show.

USA TODAY

Accepting the Peabody award, Lindelof acknowledged the significance of the Tulsa massacre.

“Tulsa became the foundation of a new interpretation of ‘Watchmen,’ reframing a traditional superhero origin story borne 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,” he said. “It is in 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 – that we dedicate this award.”

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Lindelof, a white man, also raised the issue of  representation and inclusion in storytelling.   

“I want to close by thanking my creative partners, none of whom look like me or think like me, all of whom agreed this was not my story to tell. So, they stepped forward and told it themselves, with candor, authenticity and grace,” he said. “I have never been more honored in my life to shut the hell up and listen.”

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