"Watchmen" creator and star: This is America's history, not just black or white history

Star Regina King and creator Damon Lindelof spoke to Salon about the need to discuss "the uncomfortable stuff"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 3, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Regina King in "Watchmen" (Mark Hill/HBO)
Regina King in "Watchmen" (Mark Hill/HBO)

On a recent temperate, brilliant Tuesday afternoon, Regina King hosted me in a San Francisco hotel's rooftop cabana to chat about "Watchmen," Damon Lindelof's new HBO drama in which she's currently starring. King was in San Francisco to attend a public screening of the first two episodes, followed by a question and answer session. And there were bound to be many, many questions given the passionate reaction to the first episode.

That day's weather, specifically the breathable air in that rare space where we chatted, is worth noting. During the same day the Kincade Fire incinerated land some 85 miles north of the Golden Gate bridge, its blaze kicked up so fiercely that its fiery glow was visible from the city once the sun went down. But with the wind carrying its smoke in another direction that day, the wildfire's threat didn't feel imminent or even all that apparent.

It was very easy, in fact, to ignore that such a destructive and potentially lethal force lurked so closely to where we were sitting. But we were all very much aware of the fire's proximity as King talked about what it's been like to witness the public's reaction to "Watchmen," particularly the day after the premiere's airing.

Since "Watchmen" was first announced in 2017  details about production were cloaked in secrecy, with Lindelof and HBO only revealing the first episode to critics in late July. Only then was its direction revealed: it's a continuation of the alternate history Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons established in their groundbreaking 1980s comic books, only the new looming destruction is white supremacy.

Though the story itself is fiction, Lindelof intentionally chooses to open the series with a scene from the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot that destroyed its booming Greenwood neighborhood, known back then as the Black Wall Street. White mobs burned the place to the ground and drove black families from their homes. Today it is suspected that more than 300 died in massacre, with black people being the majority of its victims.

But King says that based on conversations she's had in recent years, particularly as she and her sister Reina have sought out projects about untold stories from black history, she knew that depressingly few people knew that Black Wall Street even existed.

"Watchmen" gives her this opportunity to give its story life again. And she knew the series would land with a boom, in part, owing to another coincidence:  Weeks before it premiered, scientists and forensic anthropologists began the process of searching for the mass graves where those murdered Tulsans may be buried.

So King was excited to witness Tulsa trend on social media on the Monday following the series premiere as people shared photos about the Tulsa riots and similar horrors that occurred in other American cities during the Reconstruction era and beyond.

"It just lets you know that we are thirsty to find out about our history," she said. "When I say our history, I'm talking about American history. You know, the Tulsa massacre of 1921 is not just black history. It's American history. We have to take responsibility for not making sure our children are educated and knew about this before now. But we're moving in the right direction."

At the same time, I pointed out to her, a few voiced concern about where the narrative was headed, questioning the premiere's establishing scenes in a framework of racist horror.

King understands the trepidation, an anxiety she noticed primarily being voiced by intellectuals. "We don't need another story about slavery," she said. "I think we are very clear about that."

Speaking to that concern, she continues, "You don't want to tell someone what they should do, but there's that part of me that's like, 'Just trust that if I've decided to sign on to this, that those questions will be answered, and that anxiety you're getting will be . . . '"  she searched for the word,  "'. . .  squelched.'"

Then she paused for a moment to find a different term. "Or maybe, this is better: It's shared. It's shared with white people that are watching too because just like black intellectuals responded like that, we had a lot of white people who watched that first episode and say, 'So are you saying that black people are in power now?'

"So now we really have got a conversation. Now we can start talking about the uncomfortable stuff," she continued. "That's the point because if it's just those of us who have similar opinions are talking, there is no forward motion. But those of us who have different opinions and who have interpreted things differently are both putting that out there. So now the uncomfortable conversation starts."

Sometimes coincidental circumstances make apt metaphors. In "Watchmen" the community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the world by extension, is a tinderbox. Tensions between the alternate history's police force and the white supremacist terrorist organization known as Seventh Kavalry are sparking, and dangerously close to setting everything ablaze.

The original "Watchmen" is both an alternate history of America and of American superheroes. Moore and Gibbons weaved a world where masked heroes changed the world, but were soon forced into retirement or government service. Vigilantes who continue to fight without official sanction are branded outlaws.

In Lindelof's "Watchmen," Robert Redford has been president for nearly three decades, the government has paid reparations to the black survivors of the Tulsa massacre, and both the cops and the villains wear masks. The Seventh Kavalry covers their faces with masks inspired by the fallen vigilante Rorschach, a right-wing conspiracy theorist from the original story who is not around to refute their co-opting of his secret identity.

But here, the police officers' normal lives are their secret identity. Rank-and-file uniformed cops cover their faces with yellow masks while the detectives are distinguished by their elaborate intimidating get-ups. King's character Angela Abar claims to be retired from the police force, but she remains a cop, disguised in a hooded costume and operating under the name Sister Night.

Lindelof designed "Watchmen" be something more than merely a comic book adaptation.

In many interviews leading up to the premiere he cited Ta-Nehisi Coates' book "Between the World and Me" and his 2014 essay in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," as influences for his take on the "Watchmen" canon. However, the works themselves are not the actual "inciting incident" as it were.

Every superhero tale has an origin story. This one begins around 2014 or 2015. Back then, Lindelof recalled, "If you were a white liberal living in Los Angeles, the way that you could do your virtue signaling and demonstrate your 'wokeness' was to say that you had read Ta-Nehisi Coates."

In a separate phone interview Lindelof mentions the New Jersey town of Teaneck, where he was raised, and where he lived within the illusion that it was a place of "utopic racial equality." This was shattered when he was 17, he said, after a white police officer shot an unarmed African American teenager in the back and a grand jury did not indict him. Lindelof recalls looting and destruction afterward.

But even that event didn't fully dispense with the illusion. His actual wake-up call occurred when he read "The Case for Reparations," he confessed,  "So that I could say that I read it."

"It was the equivalent of someone who basically says, 'I'm going to go to church because I should go to church on Sunday,'" he admitted, "But then when you actually hear the sermon, you become religious." After reading the essay, he added, "The way that I saw the world and the way that I saw myself changed. Once that shift happened, there was no going back. I started to feel like I couldn't do any more television that ignored race in the way that the television that I have been making ignored race."

He added, "It doesn't mean that I haven't had people of color on my television shows before. But those people of color were almost entirely in support of the white people. Very rarely was their color ever openly acknowledged. I just couldn't do that anymore. So this is what came out of that process, as imperfect as it may be."

Angela represents something of a divergence from the roles for which King, who has an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and three Emmys under her belt, has become known. And yet it makes sense that she would leap into the role. She said it's aligns with the stories she's wanting to tell, in the same way that her award-winning work in "If Beale Street Could Talk" enables her to expose a wider audience to the works of James Baldwin and other luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance.

Even more than this, she says, she hopes the series brings viewers into conversations about what she calls the shared space we're been wary of acknowledging.

"The common space is the discomfort, the pain, the guilt, and the shame. We have to be honest," she said. "You know – and I don't want to take other people out of the equation – but when you're talking about America, we're talking about black and white. That's been the history. It's part of the fabric of this country.

"So you have all a lot of white people that have inherited a lot of guilt and shame and have inherited a lot of privilege," she added. "And then you have a black people who have inherited a lot of pain and a lot of anger, who have been . . . stuffing it away, you know? Denial, I guess, would be the common space. But if we all can be honest about what's really happened, then the conversation is starting from a different place. Because we're starting from a place of honesty."

To that end, Lindelof designed "Watchmen" to troll the concept of the white savior as harshly as it takes on white supremacy.

"We've been going out of our way to say this is a show about white supremacy," he said. "I've made sure that it's been included in all the marketing materials. I'm talking about it a lot in every interview. It's not something that's just the subtext. It's text. If you're not processing that aspect of the show, it's because it's so upsetting and you just don't want to be thinking about it."

Lindelof then goes on to point out that the concept of white supremacy and the white savior are different but related.  "The white savior, for many people, is just analogous with the savior because all saviors are white," he said. "Even within the realm of our lens of understanding, there's no question that they would be anything other than white."

"When I say that I'm trolling the idea of the white savior, I think that you know what I mean," he continued. "People who follow culture in general, particularly in terms of storytelling, but also just in terms of news reporting, attach a certain level of heroism to this idea, that the person that's going to rescue us, that person is almost always male and almost always white. That, we're trolling the idea of."

King and Lindelof each understand the various versions of trepidation with which a viewer might approach "Watchmen." Comic book fans may be uneasy at viewing an extension of a classic that does not have the blessing of its creators. (To be clear, Zack Snyder's 2009 movie didn't either.) Lindelof is even more sympathetic to people who might shy away from watching a series about systemic racism, even one cloaked in superhero fantasy, in an era in which we're confronted by it every day, largely thanks to the brazenness of the people running the country.

"The last thing you need on a Sunday night when you want to escape that idea is to be confronted with it. I get that," he said. "I don't feel like the show needs to be watched by everybody. I get why people don't want to acknowledge that part of the show."

And yet King believes that we need to confront the ugliness in some fashion. Just because we can't see the inferno doesn't mean it could never burn us.

"This is so much more complex than just saying it's a conversation. It's ongoing," she said.  "I hope that I am still alive when we get on the other side of addressing the fact that this is America's history, and not black or white history. I hope I get to see it. I may not, but I'd like to feel like I was a part of getting us closer to it."

"Watchmen" airs Sundays  at 9 p.m. on HBO.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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