Watching “Watchmen” as a Descendant of the Tulsa Race MassacreHistorians in the News
tags: Oklahoma, comic books, television, Tulsa race massacre
Last October, when Marilyn Christopher sat down in her Manhattan apartment to watch the première of “Watchmen,” she was seeking an escape. A science-fiction fanatic, she had spent a lifetime devouring Robert Heinlein novels and seeing “Star Wars” and “The Matrix” in theatres multiple times. She enjoyed the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel, so the HBO series seemed like a safe bet for an entertaining Sunday night. For Marilyn, the right sci-fi yarn was a ticket to an unknown new world, where the trials of living in New York could be briefly forgotten. But as the opening scene of the series depicted a small boy sitting in a movie theatre, while his weeping mother banged discordant keys on a piano, Marilyn felt herself crash-landing back in reality. “That’s Tulsa,” she recalled thinking. “That could be my grandfather. That’s the Tulsa race riot!”
Marilyn watched as the little boy and his parents attempted a frantic escape from Greenwood, the prosperous neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, during the Tulsa Race Massacre, in 1921. On her TV, bullets cracked the air, bombs fell from airplanes, fires enveloped buildings. Tulsa had never been brought to life with such gruesome glamour. To Marilyn’s eye, the boy appeared to be a stand-in for the grandfather she’d grown up calling Daddo. He was a massacre survivor whose mother, Loula, had owned a theatre in Greenwood and whose father, John, had owned an auto-repair shop. Daddo’s given name was William Danforth Williams—the “Watchmen” boy goes by Will Williams, though he changes his last name to Reeves after the attack on his home. As the family on TV fled for their lives, Marilyn’s real-life family business flashed across the screen: the Williams Dreamland Theatre. Williams Auto Repair made a cameo, too. Even some of the sequence’s smallest details, like a brief shot of a white man brandishing a stolen leopard coat, appeared to be taken from oral histories that had travelled from Daddo’s lips to academic books to popular culture.
It was all a little too real for Marilyn. She turned the show off after the opening spectacle and has had little motivation to revisit it since. “Once I saw dead Black bodies, I said, ‘I don’t want to watch this,’ ” she told me. “I know that I should appreciate this, but I guess I didn’t.”
On Sunday evening, “Watchmen” will vie for twenty-six Emmy Awards, as the most-nominated television show of the year. Implicit in the widespread praise for the show is the righteousness of its mission, in bringing a long-buried story of racial terrorism to a wide American audience. Other shows, such as HBO’s more recent hit “Lovecraft Country,” have also woven the nation’s hidden history of racial violence into tales that veer into sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. Authors who were the forebears of this style of storytelling are receiving unprecedented mainstream attention this year—the writer Octavia Butler, who wrote novels that married historical and science fiction, often centering on race, entered the Times best-seller list for the first time, this month, fourteen years after her death. Black history is becoming big business.
For people who have lived with the weight of these stories for generations, though, it is a different thing to watch ancestors you knew and admired seep into the public consciousness as silhouettes of their actual selves. “Our legacy—I don’t think it’s perceived as something that’s ours,” Marilyn told me. “If you have passion and a desire to share and illuminate this point of time in history, that can be taken advantage of, if you’re not careful.”
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