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The Tulsa 1921 Watchmen Opening Explained
HBO’s Watchmen opens in 1921 during the Tulsa Race Massacre, a deeply disturbing real stain on American history, where, on May 31, 1921, a mob of white people attacked a black community. We first see a young boy watching a silent news reel as the violence is breaking out around a theater. He’s swept away from the violence by his mother and father and left in the care of another person. We see men in KKK white firing guns at helpless men and women. We see planes actually dropping bombs on this small community. It’s chilling, and although Watchmen takes place in an alt-history, this event actually took place.
The massacre is known as the “worst incident of racial violence” in American history. Hundreds of people were violently murdered during the Tulsa Race Massacre, but the exact body count is unknown. And some people watching this fictionalized version might not even know it ever happened, as “news reports were largely squelched, despite the fact that hundreds of people were killed and thousands left homeless.” As NPR reported last year, the event is also not often taught in schools:
Before the events in May of 1921, the Greenwood district of Tulsa was a predominately African-American neighborhood, known for its thriving middle-class. The main strip, Greenwood Avenue, was lined with successful black-owned businesses. Greenwood may have been a haven for African-Americans, but the state of Oklahoma had strict laws limiting the rights of black people. Schools, hospitals, trains, stores, restaurants, even public phone booths were segregated and miscegenation was a felony. Lynchings were not uncommon and by 1920, the Ku Klux Klan was reemerging in the state.
When Dick Rowland, a young black man, was accused of assaulting a young white woman in an elevator in May 1921, things escalated quickly. He was arrested and word spread that white mobs were headed to the courthouse, intending to lynch him. The mobs were met by a group of armed black men, many of whom were World War I veterans. After a confrontation, shots were fired, and thus began a day-long assault on Greenwood. In less than 24 hours, the white mobs destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses. They set fire to schools, churches, libraries, and movie theaters, leveling entire city blocks.
In Watchmen’s opening, we see planes dropping bombs on what was known at the time as Black Wall Street. This also actually happened, according to reports. Tulsa is considered to be the first city in the United States to be bombed from the air.
For a show that confronts the centuries of racism in the U.S., this opening serves as a chilling reminder that white supremacy is a villain this country has always been fighting. This is also an important introduction to the alt-history in which Watchmen takes place. Major real U.S. events did take place in the Watchmen universe, but they are slightly different—like the U.S. winning the Vietnam war—and changed by the existence of Doctor Manhattan.
“In order for this to be Watchmen, we have to start with an unsolvable problem, a problem that the most well-intentioned superheroes and vigilantes actually cannot solve,” Damon Lindelof told me of the thesis at the heart of his series. “And now we’re in 2019 instead of the ’80s, where it feels like you can’t tell a story about America in any kind of real, historical context that doesn’t talk about race.”
This opening scene makes that very clear from the beginning.
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.