TV Critic Luke Wheeler urges you to watch Watchmen, arguing the show’s relevance has only increased following the Black Lives Matter Movement
In 2019, Watchmen burst on to TV screens to become one of the best mini-series of the decade. Damon Lindelof, of Lost and The Leftovers, has reinterpreted Alan Moore’s seminal 1986 comic to reflect what he believes to be the current great American cultural anxiety – race.
Lindelof, a self-professed ‘White liberal,’ was inspired by the works of Ta-Nehisi Coates, specifically Between The World And Me and Case for Reparations, with the 1921 Tulsa race massacre having a profound effect on him. Lindelof noted not only feeling ashamed and embarrassed that he had not heard about the massacre before, but that when he tried to relate the story to fellow white Americans he could see them disconnecting from it in front of him. This inspiration coincided with Lindelof being approached to make a Watchmen adaptation for a third time and the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, sparking his vision for the series.
Both Watchmen’s narrative and authorship are steeped in the African American experience. The Tulsa race massacre is the show’s cornerstone, from this seed Lindelof grows the show’s story, exploring trauma, colonisation, appropriation, and reparations amongst other issues. Lindelof saw the opportunity of the Watchmen universe’s alternative history to invert the status quo, saying ‘what if?’: what if the police were, in fact, afraid of white supremacists, what if there was legal precedence for providing reparations, what if Vietnam had become another American state? The result is a dense, rich, and jarring world that feels familiar and alien, and achieves this without overbearing and cumbersome exposition. In an interview with Lindelof, Marc Bernadin (of the Fat Man Beyond podcast) notes that Watchmen is to Black trauma what Black Panther is to Black excellence – and it’s easy to see why. Lindelof seems to have been able to tap into some of the hurt at the heart of the Black experience, the loss of history and continuity as a result of the slave trade, and bring it into sharp relief with the help of Regina King’s antagonist, Angela Abar. Through Angela, the audience is exposed to and subsequently forced to process, the trauma that her and her family has been subject to. This is what Lindelof set out to achieve, the trojan horsing of these uncomfortable issues surrounding race into a show that became a ‘must-see’ piece of television.
Watchmen is not, however, a one-man show and Lindelof regularly admits so. As showrunner he acknowledged that this was not necessarily his story to tell, preferring to view himself as a curator who brought together the people this story belongs to. Lindelof was aware that the original Watchmen source material did not do justice to its female characters and barely featured people of colour, and subsequently sought to remedy this, writers of colour such as Christal Henry, Cord Jefferson, and Stacy Osei-Kuffour were part of a group that was deliberately half black and half female. The entire approach to the show was one of consensus, appreciating one another’s ideas and not compromising on people’s values. This fundamental respect for people and their right to have a say in stories that are founded in their history, and to create characters that are reflections of their reality has resulted in a piece of television that is revelatory, heart-wrenching, introspective and sublimely tense.
In light of recent events, Watchmen has so much to teach us, through its challenging and thought-provoking narrative down to the humility of its showrunner who appreciated deeply that this was not his story to tell alone, who took proactive action to counteract his own assumptions and hold himself to account, and to actively use his privilege for good.
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