While Watchmen is a fictional adaptation of comic books about masked superheroes, the HBO series, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, took the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 to further demonstrate the importance of how stories about justice — superhero stories in particular — must grapple with difficult topics around oppression.
The Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma lasted for 18 hours, from May 31 to June 1. It involved the brutal attack on Black homes and businesses in the Greenwood neighborhood by white mobs. A Black teenage boy, Dick Rowland, entered an elevator in the city’s Drexel building. At some point the white woman operating the elevator, Sarah Page, screamed and Rowland fled. Tulsa police arrested him the next morning. Rowland was under the threat of lynching for the alleged attack, facing vigilante justice that was too common in the city. A white mob insisted the police had Rowland over. A group of armed Black men went to the courthouse to offer to guard him and were turned away. An hour later, at 10 p.m., a group of 75 armed Black men returned, amid rumors of lynching, and faced a mob of 1,500 armed white people. For the next several hours, fueled by rumors of an uprising by Tulsa’s Black citizens, the community was subjected to numerous acts of barbarism — some at the hands of white citizens who were deputized and armed by the police. The hysteria reached a peak at dawn, when they looted, burned, and destroyed thousands of homes in the Greenwood neighborhood. The National Guard arrived after the worst was over, but ended up putting several Black community members under armed guard.
Thirty-six people were killed, including 10 white people. Estimates suggest that more than 1,000 Black homes were burned to the ground in addition to churches, hotels, a library, a hospital, a school, and many storefronts. The charges against Rowland were dropped mere hours after the riot — police deduced that he had most likely stepped on Page’s foot or bumped into her. The infamous Black Wall Street, a strip of successful businesses started by Black people in Tulsa, was destroyed during the event. For decades, the Tulsa Race Massacre was under a media blackout until the 1970s, when scholars began to dig deeper and found that both local police and state militia actively covered up news coverage of the tragedy. An official commission to investigate the tragedy was put into place in 2001 and found that the death toll estimate was actually between 100 and 300, and more than 8,000 people were left homeless in the aftermath. In 2018, the commission was officially renamed from the Tulsa Race Riot Commission to the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission.
The episode takes the true events of the Tulsa Race Massacre and melds it into the world of Watchmen as a backdrop of the 2019 setting of Tulsa. The episode depicts the events of the massacre as a flashback, then meditates on race, racism, and nostalgia through the context of masked superhero vigilantes in the present Nicole Kassel, the episode’s director, described the process of portraying the tragedy historically accurate, including reading a book about the event and reaching out to the community that still lives there.
“Enormous amount of time went into planning that. From reading a book, The Burning by Tim Madigan. When I read the script, Damon told me Tulsa ’21’s real,” said Kassel in an interview with Slate.
“I read a book and my assistant director did and that whole team, so that we made those vignettes from the book and just did everything as historically accurately as possible. We went to Greenwood and Tulsa and met with the people there, the center there. It was 250 people at least. Incredible number of stunts,” Kassel elaborated.
Kassel and series creator Damon Lindelof also expected to receive a lot of backlash from fans of the original comic book because they deviated from the fictional setting and put the characters in the context of a real American race tragedy. In the face of a potentially very angry fanbase, Lindelof is dedicated to updating Watchmen to be as inclusive as what current superhero culture dictates.
“If you think about what superhero culture was in the mid ‘80s when Watchmen initially dropped and what superhero culture is now...I think that it’s time to start really asking the question, ‘Why are all the superheroes white dudes?’” Lindelof said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“We’re really proud of the fact that there are some incredibly strong women who are not just in Watchmen, but are actually leading the charge. I just felt like their time was due.”