In 2015, the photographer Tyler Shields released an image that, in his own words, cost him a book deal.
The photograph, titled Lynching, was part of a series called Historical Fiction. It depicted a black man, who is nude, in its foreground. He is knee-deep in an inky abyss of water, holding fast to a rope entwined around his right arm. On the other end, hanging from a tree, is a hooded Klansman, neck snapped, body limp, his feet inches from the same body of water.
Watchmen, which functions as a sequel to the Alan Moore comic book maxiseries of the same name, is a lot like Shields’ Lynching: An arresting, daring, complex work of art about white supremacy that dares to challenge its audience while refusing to traffic in cheap provocation. The new series begins Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m.
Moore’s comic was set in 1985. Series creator Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) fast-forwards the story to present-day America and uses the probing, philosophical nature of the original comic as its inspiration, while taking an unexpected but welcome turn. Moore’s comic explored the nature of superheroism and power itself, how and if vigilantism could co-exist with the established structure of democracy, and what would result if such a world existed.
Much like Moore’s original universe, the 2019 Tulsa, of Watchmen is awash in weirdness. In this alternate Tulsa, Oklahoma, Vietnam is a state because the U.S. won the Vietnam War, Watergate never happened, alien squid creatures rain down from the sky at unpredictable intervals. The country is run by President Robert Redford (yes, as in The Way We Were Robert Redford), who has been in office for some 25 years. His treasury secretary is Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Redford administration has enacted reparations for the descendants of the Greenwood Massacre, also known as the Black Wall Street massacre.
Now for a quick side trip to reality: After World War I, Tulsa’s Greenwood district was a bustling haven of black economic activity. A young black man, Dick Rowland, was arrested after he got on an elevator with a white operator named Sarah Page. Page reportedly cried out. When members of the black community came to the Tulsa courthouse to demand justice for Rowland, who was being held by police, a mob of armed white Oklahomans chased the black protesters to Greenwood. On June 1, 1921, they burned and looted the district known as Black Wall Street.
Back to the Tulsa of Watchmen: In 2019, the white residents of Tulsa still harbor resentment toward the black ones. Three years earlier, an organized mob of whites known as the Seventh Kavalry (essentially a new iteration of the Ku Klux Klan) hunted down Tulsa police and killed them because the police were fighting white supremacist terrorism. After the mass murder, the entire police force is nearly wiped out, save for detective Angela Abar (Regina King) and Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). The secret police now wear masks to hide their identities. After three years of peace, trouble begins anew when a Kavalry member shoots and kills the black officer who pulled him over during a traffic stop.
The series takes off when it becomes clear that the Kavalry will not be satisfied with one instance of violence, but instead is gunning for full-on revolution. I’ve seen the first six episodes, and they are startling in their insight and overall brilliance. I can’t say much more about plot details without setting off a minefield of spoilers. However, Watchmen is on par with Get Out as an astute and compelling examination of race and power in America, one committed to exploring the insidious depths of the country’s original sin and what it truly takes to subvert it. It is ambitious, consuming, visually appealing entertainment that is also masterfully dense with historical and sociological observation.
Lindelof and his team of writers (Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, Cord Jefferson, and Carly Wray) has taken on a challenge that has tripped up many a writer and director exploring the idea of racial role reversal and the flip-flopping of power dynamics. It’s an experiment employed with results that run the spectrum from flippant to profound to utterly disastrous, showing up in Wild Wild West, BlacKkKlansman and even Ma.
Watchmen’s true superpower is that the ramifications of every subversion, every appropriation of all that those who cling to white supremacy hold dear, every millisecond of dialogue and imagery, has been deeply considered. Like Daniel Fish’s radical restaging of Oklahoma!, the musical from which Lindelof draws so much inspiration, Watchmen never loses sight of the limits white supremacy exacts on black power, even black power that is afforded the imprimatur of white institutional legitimacy. In Watchmen, that legitimacy comes in the form of a police badge and uniform.
In that way, Watchmen feels appropriate for right now, as works such as Oklahoma!, Slave Play, and the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project continue to prod at the country’s long-held beliefs about race and power, question them, and turn them 180 degrees for full, well overdue examination. In Watchmen, all of the characters are raced, and the show contends with what that means with refreshing consistency — it follows the complications such a decision invites instead of turning its back on that decision when the siren call of narrative convenience beckons.
It is wholly committed to the challenges of being a character-driven work that derives its propulsion from the horrors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and that commitment makes itself evident the more the story unfolds with each episode.
Watchmen isn’t perfect, and if you’re unfamiliar with the comic or the 2009 Zack Snyder adaptation, some of its turns can feel awfully disorienting. But patience is rewarded; a virtuosic sixth episode, directed by Lost alum Stephen Williams, provides the keys for how everything fits together, and it’s impossible to exaggerate what a big, satisfying payoff it delivers. Before then, King delivers a remarkable, rangy performance. The choreography of her fight scenes is punchy, breathtaking and fiercely kinetic. King’s scenes with Jean Smart, who plays an FBI agent named Laurie Blake, practically jump off the screen.
As for further parallels to Shields’ Lynching? They will reveal themselves with time. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s canonically nonwhite Alexander Hamilton: Just you wait.