The Tulsa Race Massacre turns 100: How HBO's 'Watchmen' helped teach America a crucial history lesson

It was perhaps the most harrowing opening scene in recent television memory. A young African American boy is watching a silent black-and-white movie about famed Oklahoma lawman Bass Reeves when the sounds of explosions rock the theater. His gun-wielding parents carry him out into a main street overwhelmed with panic as bold yellow font on screen announces the setting: TULSA 1921.

The opening scene of HBO's
The opening scene of HBO's "Watchmen." (Photo: HBO)

As the sequence plays out, multiple Black people are gunned down in the street as a plane drops homemade explosives from above. Others are beaten. Businesses are firebombed. The perpetrators: an angry white mob, some donning the familiar threads of the Ku Klux Klan.

Viewers were stunned by the introductory scene of HBO’s Watchmen, an alternate-history sequel to the classic 1980s graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that used its collection of Justice League-like heroes for acute social commentary. Based on the source material, many presumed the brutal, attention-grabbing show opening was fiction but enough viewers were unsure that search engine inquiries for “Tulsa 1921” and related terms spiked in the hours after the premiere. Fans learned that the events were a surprisingly authentic depiction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Massacre, which took place 100 years ago. Beginning May 31 and stretching into June 1, 1921, dozens of white Oklahomans stormed the Greenwood District — then the wealthiest Black community in the U.S., known as “Black Wall Street” — and burned it to the ground.

And just like that, with its widely viewed, widely acclaimed debut on Oct. 20, 2019, Watchmen helped teach Americans a pivotal history lesson long resigned to a footnote — if not omitted altogether — in educational materials and textbooks.

“Seeing so many tweets that #Watchmen was the first time they heard about Black Wall Street and had no idea that our opening depicted the Tulsa Massacre which had not been taught in US history classes,” star Regina King wrote on Twitter a day after the premiere, sharing a link to a Washington Post story about the long search for mass graves used to bury the massacre's victims. (The massacre’s death toll has never been confirmed and varies wildly from source to source.)

Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) was inspired to open the series with the events of Tulsa after reading about the historically ignored incident in a 2004 article in the Atlantic called "The Case for Reparations" by author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“It struck something in him emotionally,” King, who played lead character Angela Abar — an avenging detective who fronts Tulsa's charge against the KKK-like white supremacist group Seventh Kavalry — told Yahoo Entertainment in a July 2020 interview.

At the time of our interview, Black Lives Matter protests were sweeping the streets following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. Midpandemic, America also suddenly found itself in the thick of racial reckoning that made many of its citizens more attuned to their own ignorance of injustices like Tulsa that have plagued the nation for hundreds of years.

Regina King in
Regina King, left, in "Watchmen." (Photo: HBO)

“Look, we're talking about 1921, this happened,” King told us at the time. “Cut to [today], same s***'s going down. There's the same mentality happening. We're not having another massacre, but it feels like we're having little mini-massacres all around.”

Both King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who played Cal Abar, Angela’s husband and the disguised alter ego of the near-omnipotent superhero Dr. Manhattan, earned acting Emmys for their work in the series. During the awards ceremony, where Watchmen won a leading 11 awards, including Best Limited Series, Lindelof memorably dedicated that top prize to the victims and survivors of the attack while sporting a “Remember Tulsa ’21” T-shirt.

Shortly after the Emmys, Abdul-Mateen reflected on the effects of Watchmen in a September 2020 interview with Yahoo Entertainment.

“I’m really happy that Watchmen was an educational tool for a lot of people. Recently there’s been a lot of focus on Tulsa, and the residents and the descendants from the massacre,” he told us. “There’s a lot of work being done to, so to speak, attempt to right the wrongs.”

The cultural awakening surrounding Tulsa continues with several new and upcoming screen projects.

To mark the centennial, there are high-profile documentaries being released (it should be noted, these were in the works before Watchmen’s debut). On May 30, the History Channel will debut Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre executive-produced by NBA star Russell Westbrook, formerly of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

On May 31, CNN will premiere the documentary Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street, directed by Salima Koroma (Bad Rap) and executive-produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter under their SpringHill Company banner. On June 18, National Geographic will premiere Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer from acclaimed documentarian Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble).

And earlier this week it was announced that Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance will executive produce a limited series about the Tulsa Race Massacre for MTV Entertainment Studios.

While Koroma’s Dreamland was in preproduction before Watchmen exploded into the public consciousness, Porter credits the series with igniting her project.

“That’s where most people’s experience of the race massacre in Tulsa is — through popular television and through Watchmen,” Porter recently told the Grio. “I feel like we actually owe a big thank you to Watchmen for that. It was such superior filmmaking that people were intrigued, but also couldn’t believe this was real, and that’s how I came to it.”

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