Tulsa race massacre turns 100: How HBO’s Watchmen brought back ‘forgotten’ tragedy to the mainstream

Hundreds of people were killed by a white mob that attacked a Black neighbourhood in 1921

Peony Hirwani@peony_hirwani
Tuesday 01 June 2021 11:23
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Watchmen depicts 1921 Tulsa race massacre

As US marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, HBO’s 2019 series Watchmen played a big role in remembering the forgotten history of the deadly racial injustice that occurred in Greenwood district, Oklahoma, in 1921.

The massacre began during the Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old, white elevator operator.

Following the allegations, hundreds of Black Americans were killed by a white mob that attacked a Black neighbourhood, dubbed as Black Wall Street, and set city blocks ablaze.

The series kicks off with a young boy watching a silent film featuring the story of Black Oklahoma marshal Bass Reeves when the sounds of an explosion shakes the theatre. As the sequence plays out, multiple Black people are shot in the street, as a plane drops bombs from above.

The documentary series taught Americans an important history lesson long resigned to a footnote in textbooks and materials.

Watchmen - The Tulsa Race Massacre

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who played the character Cal Abar, told Yahoo! Entertainment in a 2020 interview: “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.”

A few months after this series debuted, conversations over police brutality and racial injustice in the United States made the show especially applicable and timely.

Actor Regina King, who played the character of Angela Abar, Cal’s wife in the series, told MSNBC’s Tiffany Cross what it felt like to bring these kinds of stories to life.

She said: “We’ve been living in a space where revision has been the history that we have learned, and even as a 50-year-old woman, I/we could be here all day sharing the things I did not learn in school about myself or the history of this country.”

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“I think we are in a space where more people that aren’t just Black people that are interested in revising the revision,” she said.

Nicole Kassell, a director and executive producer for the show, additionally told Wall Street Journal that “re-creating the massacre was challenging.”

When asked about how it felt taking on the responsibility of teaching the audience about this traumatic moment in history, the 49-year-old director said: “It was definitely daunting. I felt an incredible burden—in a good way—of being truthful and extremely well-researched.”

“It was an immense challenge both technically and emotionally because we had very little time to film it and it’s a huge action set-piece. I really focused on how to take care of everybody involved in the making of the scene. And in preparation, just reading about it and trying to distill it in a way that was as truthful as possible,” she said.

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