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Watchmen HBO: Centering Our Imagination

Watchmen is greatly characterised by the way it fluidly moves between the past and its futuristic present, wedging the audience’s current reality right in the middle. In this way, we get a glimpse of what the Watchmen writer’s room imagines for our future. A deliberate move from HBO, the nine-episode season was made free for viewership in honour of Juneteeth weekend (June 19th- June 21st).

Black storytelling has always gone hand in hand with movements, and there is something particularly fitting about science-fiction storytelling when we consider Black liberation. Author and activist Adrienne Maree Brown reminds us that “all organising is science fiction- that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced...our radical imagination is a tool for decolonisation, for reclaiming our right to shape our lived reality.” Rewatching Watchmen last week was yet another necessary reminder to centre imagination.

The HBO adaptation is set in Greenwood, Tulsa and spotlights The 1921 Tulsa Massacre, using it as the backdrop through which it confronts centuries of racial violence against Black people in the U.S. Naturally, only “survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and their direct descendants are eligible” to benefit from any form of reparations in this alt-universe. One of the ways this manifests is in the form of The Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage - part museum, part research facility- a highly sophisticated establishment that not only showcases the violent history Black people in Tulsa were subjected to but also has technology that allows them to trace back their history.

About a quarter way through the fourth episode “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” Angela Abar/ Sister Night (played by Regina King) enters The Greenwood Center, where she retrieves an encoded acorn. Angela then takes it to a room called The Green House where she plants it such that a virtual family tree appears; revealing new information about her family recovered from Will Reeves’ (played by Louis Gossett Jr.) DNA sample.

Now, museums we are used to, but for your family lineage to be revealed- a task that so often involves having to fill in missing plot holes- felt absolutely mind-blowing. Watchmen imagines a world where Black people, who are still healing from the plight of racial violence, do not have to take it upon themselves to weave together their history that was pillaged by said violence. It imagines a world where accountability from the government is not only thoughtful of the emotional trauma that comes with a lost history, but also compassionate in the way they go about exposing said history. The language used by the voiceover machines in the center carried so much consideration; it included an apology for the historical and ongoing violence and even asked for consent before revealing the virtual family tree to Angela.

The significance of this, although pretty clear, becomes even more visceral in the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being.” In a panic, Angela Abar swallows “nostalgia” pills, allowing her to relive her (now confirmed) grandfather’s time as a police officer and mysterious Hooded Justice. Angela falls right into young Will’s memories (played by Jovan Adepo) - illustrated by the sudden use of black and white cinematography- as the only Black graduating police cadet. Later on in the episode, June (played by Danielle Deadwyler), a reporter present at the graduation and Will’s wife (and the crying baby that he found in the field years ago) questions him about his obsession with the Bass Reeves film: Trust in the Law. We learn that this film greatly informed his view of the world and his belief in the badge as a means for seeking the justice that he craves. June is a skeptic; she suggests that his anger (more than his desire for justice) is apparent. The stunning camera work smoothly substitutes Will for Angela as she unconvincingly responds “I’m not angry,” confirming to the audience that Will’s anger is indeed Angela’s too. This is perhaps the first discernible instance of inherited trauma in the episode.

The climax is a bold reimagining of a lynching. Will is attacked by a group of white officers from his precinct and then the camera cuts to him being dragged towards a tree, the point of view suddenly switching such that we see the scene from Will’s eyes. It is a harrowing sight, broken down only by the empathy of having the audience embody Will as he is brutalised. The spectacle is turned onto the aggressors, the white officers committing these atrocities. This feels deliberate; at a time of increased taping of Black trauma, this subversion is particularly needed as it puts emphasis on Will’s humanity. The writers (Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson) don’t allow the audience to uncomplicatedly bear witness. The point of view switches back to a bloodied and shaken Angela, after having just been cut down, reminding us yet again, Will’s trauma is Angela’s too.

With any illusion of achieving justice through the law now vanished, Will transforms into Hooded Justice- the reworked Minutemen superhero whose history as it pertains to the hood and loosened noose, becomes much more pertinent. His masks: the black hood and white paint around his eyes carry double meaning. They are a nod to the supernatural symbolism that African ancestry associates with masks, but also a painful reminder of the way black bodies are regarded, confirmed when the reporter asks “How do you respond to rumors that your strength is supernatural?”

Angela plummeting into her family’s past was violent- perhaps this was partly a stylistic choice to force the audience to behold just how violent racism is- but it did fuel her own reckoning. The insight allowed her a great understanding of her grandfather’s life and why he sought her out, and it also marked the beginning of her reconciliation with the events in her own life (as both Angela Abar and her vigilante alt-self Sister Night).

Another instance of Black storytelling incorporating technology in order to access descendants is in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. T’Challa is buried in a sand that allows him to speak to his late father T’Chaka. The circumstances are undoubtedly different, but both imaginings underscore the importance of giving Black people this kind of access to our histories and the impact this could have on our lived realities.

In reality, we are probably a long way to technology that allow us to be fully engrossed in our histories, (and I’m not sure that we should even put ourselves through that trauma), but the idea of a museum that carefully and meticulously chronicles Black people’s history and lineage as illustrated in the fourth episode, does not seem far fetched. A lot has been said on the subject of material reparations by Black people across the globe- including Watchmen who wrote in ‘redfordations’, monetary compensation owed to survivors of the massacre and their direct descendants. But it is especially interesting that they explore the accessibility to history as an equally important form of reparations.

Watchmen imitates life in many candid ways, but it also imagines an alt-universe that tackles the multilayered nature of racial violence. Through illustrating a close-to ideal version of what accountability might look like, the show is able to give audiences a glimpse into the possibility of reparations and the impact that would have on black existence and legacy. And perhaps more immediately, the show reminds us that a new world order is only possible if we center radical imagination.


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