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HBO's 'Watchmen' reexamines wounds of racial violence in America

Reyzando Nawara
Reyzando Nawara

A film and TV series geek

Jakarta  /  Wed, December 18, 2019  /  04:10 pm
HBO's 'Watchmen' reexamines wounds of racial violence in America

A still from the HBO Original Series 'Watchmen'. (HBO/File)

With the recent barrage of superhero movies, some may begin to feel the fatigue and are now craving for a more refreshing take on the genre. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is one of the most remarkable efforts in the deconstruction of the superhero story. First published in 1986, not only did this 12-issue gritty graphic novel refresh the already-tired superhero formula by exploring a darker ideology, it challenged readers with its examination of morality and philosophy.

In 2009, Watchmen was adapted into a movie by Zack Snyder, who later directed Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. In 2015, there were reports that Synder would direct a television adaptation of Watchmen for HBO.

The 2019’s adaptation of Watchmen is helmed by Damon Lindelof, the man behind hit-series Lost and The Leftovers. HBO’s Watchmen is not a direct adaptation of the graphic novel. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lindelof said the series felt more like a sequel than a reboot, as the pilot takes place some 30 years after the graphic novel ends.

The graphic novel is set in an alternative 1986, where threats of a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union loom. HBO’s Watchmen is set in an alternative 2019, where the focus has shifted to racial issues and injustice.

In the pilot, Watchmen does not immediately draw us into this alternate timeline, but instead to a harrowing real event of the Black Wall Street Massacre. The event is considered as one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, taking place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From May 31 to June 1, 1921, a group of white supremacists destroyed a business district by dropping firebombs and shooting at black residents. Hundreds of people were murdered with many others injured, orphaned and left homeless.

The brutality is shown from the point of view of a young boy, who later becomes Will Reeves, a black gay man behind the infamous Minutemen’s Hooded Justice. Then, the perspective turns to the present, focusing on Regina King’s Angela Abar, a Tulsa police detective who dons a nun-like garb and a spray-painted black mask as her alter ego Sister Night.

What ultimately sets the plot in motion is the murder of Angela’s boss, the Tulsa chief of police Sheriff Crawford (Don Johnson) by none other than Reeves. Angela, who does not believe that this 100-plus-year-old man in a wheelchair is capable of murdering Crawford with his own hands, begins an investigation to understand what’s really happening. But as she gets closer to the truth, what she finds is far more complicated than the murder itself: a bigger and older conflict about her history, family and the ugly world she lives in.

Read also: Vast, insidious conspiracy at play: HBO releases new ‘Watchmen’ trailer

It’s through Angela’s journey of making sense of herself that Lindelof manages to not only reintroduce original characters such as Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons), and Doctor Manhattan, but also to connect this new invention with the main essence of the original source. In telling a complex story of intergenerational trauma that African-American are still experiencing every day in this political climate, Lindelof successfully ties it up with the theme of appropriation that’s always been front and center to Moore’s comic book.

Watchmen displays the harmful impact of cultural appropriation through the story of a Ku Klux Klan-like white supremacist group named Seventh Cavalry, which is appropriating Rorschach’s deontology and extreme right-wing worldview to justify their its crimes against people of color in the name of restoring the balance of America.

Watchmen touches on this racial hatred not by exploiting the experience of black trauma but rather by simply telling it as what it really is: a multitude of emotions, confusion, fears and anger that have been repressed deeply within the life of people of color for the sake of adapting in a world that does not allow them to display said trauma freely.

This argument is further hammered home in the sixth episode of the show “This Extraordinary Being", where the origin story of Will Reeves is revealed through a mesmerizing black-and-white nostalgia trip.

By diving deep into Will’s origin story, the show argues that black trauma, much like other trauma, can be passed on from one generation to another like DNA. So much of the show’s main story revolves around this examination of trauma and in telling so, the masks that Angela, the Seventh Cavalry or the other characters are wearing work well as a deft allegory of how in this word, people would just choose to veil said trauma behind any facade that they pick to show to the outside world just because it’s easier to do so. But in the case of black trauma, the mask is not only an easier route, it’s also a safer route.

Watchmen shines a light on this concern to remind us, especially Americans, that it’s time to unveil the masks and let the wounds that come from the black trauma be seen.

“You can’t heal under a mask, Angela,” says Will, “Wounds need air to heal.”

Indeed, if we want to heal a wound, we should allow it to surface and breathe freely any way we can. Be it with tears or anger, it’s important to let it all out because it is then and only then that the healing process can begin; that wounded people like Angela, Will and any other African-American can be healed.

Thought-provoking, bold and political at once, Watchmen is a show that dares to look deep into the ugly truth of America’s racial violence and the generational trauma that comes with it. What’s more, the show is also a perfect acting showcase for King, Smart, Hong Chau and Tim Blake Nelson. To miss this show is to miss one of the best television seasons ever made. (dev/wng)

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.