By Riel Flack, Editor of The Progressive Column
Watchmen turns an unapologetic lens on the intersection of race and power, demonstrating how hero-lawmakers are sometimes wolves in sheep’s clothing.
I have a confession to make- I’m addicted to the Emmy Award winning HBO series Watchmen (2019). It is so brilliant that I’m surprised there is not even more buzz about it. I spend a lot of time thinking about the series, but I couldn’t put my finger on one specific aspect of the drama that fixed itself to my subconscious and stayed there. When it comes to a work of art- no matter how dark or comedic- it’s rarely narrowed to one ingredient that draws me in and holds me. Watchmen is no different, but as I pondered Regina King’s spin kicks and Jeremy Irons’ witticisms, one theme came roaring through- it’s the mask. Not a pandemic mask, mind you. It’s the superhero style mask that seems so timely and textured in its meaning.
For context, the series opens in 1921, depicting the Tulsa Oklahoma Race Massacre. If you’re not familiar with that disgrace, I suggest you do some cursory research. This chapter of American race-based murder and violence was committed by thousands of white mob residents in an area once known as Black Wall Street. They charged into the Greenwood Tulsa District, looting and burning over 1200 black businesses and homes. Black Wall Street was left in ruins at the hand of white supremacist mobsters.
As Watchmen opens, we bear witness to the riot through the eyes of a black youngster, Will Reeves. He watches a silent film as the bloodshed unfolds. The film depicts a white man being dragged horseback by a masked black figure. The figure rips off his mask and is revealed as “Bass Reeves”, the famous Black deputy sheriff. Will is transfixed by the heroic man on screen and recites Bass Reeves’ line along with him, “There will be no mob justice today. Trust in the law!”. Just then, reality beckons. Sirens wail, and the Tulsa Race Massacre unfolds. The fantasy of the silent film is shattered by the reality of the mayhem the child is exposed to.
Through Will’s eyes, in Reeves there is a canvas of symbolic naivete- a black man as a hero, ensuring the law will be fair and just. Yet the silent film’s depiction couldn’t be further from the truth. Watchmen’s opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the series. It turns an unapologetic lens on the intersection of race and power, demonstrating how hero-lawmakers are sometimes wolves in sheep’s clothing. This brings us to the “mask”.
“Her line, “I’ve got a nose for white supremacy and he smells like bleach” (at least she didn’t tell anybody to inject it) is a perfect fit for the blunt take-no-shit character.”
Regina King plays Angela Abar, her superhero pseudonym Sister Knight, an undercover masked cop tasked with exposing white supremacists. Her line, “I’ve got a nose for white supremacy and he smells like bleach” (at least she didn’t tell anybody to inject it) is a perfect fit for the blunt take-no-shit character. Don Johnson plays Judd Crawford, the Chief of Police in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Judd and Angela are close friends. Ironically, their friendship comes to an abrupt end after Crawford is hung by Hooded Justice-the legendary masked vigilante who coincidentally dawns an ornamental noose around his neck-revealing that the Chief is the leader of the KKK/“Seventh Cavalry”. We also meet the masked villain Rorschach, head of the white supremacist group. Underneath his mask is Joe Keene (James Wolk), a senator campaigning to become the next President. Other masked characters include Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), Red Scare (Andrew Howard) and Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a blue supernatural giant who masks himself in human form. While it would be easy for me to digress into my admiration for everything from the lighting to the sound and direction, the mask stands out as symbolic of a problem all too familiar to people of colour- who is truly an ally when we are not in the room?
“As people of colour, we have learned all too often that those we trust don’t always have our back.”
Like most of the characters, Chief Judd Crawford also wears a mask. He hides his true identity and allies with those he pretends to protect by presenting a likeable and empathetic character. In reality, Crawford is using his power to commit racial violence. While Rorschach wears a mask to act in hidden secrecy, he and Chief Crawford are no different. In fact, Chief Crawford is worse. The masks in Watchmen provide a reminder that beats like a drum in the background of every scene. White supremacy is ever present and is often hidden within the system that we are intended to trust. Malcolm X once said, “The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox. One is the wolf, the other is a fox. No matter what, they’ll both eat you.” Malcom’s thinking scared white America, and his interviews on Canadian television are still available. They provide insight into a man who is scarred, not scared. A man whose intellect was a sharp knife, daring anyone to collide with it. But this statement was honest and transparent in its justified mistrust of the “system”. As people of colour, we have learned all too often that those we trust don’t always have our back.
Malcolm X once said, “The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox. One is the wolf, the other is a fox. No matter what, they’ll both eat you.”
Watchmen is a stroke of genius. The show was released in 2019, but as 2020 comes to a close we can now reflect on the aftermath of the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests. We can think about the masks we must wear to protect us from the coronavirus. And we are forced to think about who is really behind those masks. Are they friend? Are they foe? This is the curse of racism.
At its core, Watchmen is bingeworthy. I concur with Martin Scorsese’s controversial op-ed for the New York Times, I too am no fan of the Marvel cinematic universe. But, as this superhero story goes, there is little one can criticize. It excels on all levels, and the drama is addictive. It forces us to reflect on where we are in 2021. We have been lead by the so-called leader of the free world, the one who declares himself, “the least racist person in the world.” We are not fooled, he too smells like bleach. His claim never passed the smell test. Someday Mark Burnett will do the right thing and release the Apprentice tapes. Surely his Christian faith will motivate some transparency. Or maybe not.
Beware of the wolf in masked clothing. Sometimes it’s not just a television show.