HBO's Watchmen opens in a most unexpected way, as we are taken back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, where a town of African-American residents is swept up in a violent attack. As the sequence shows, the Greenwood district of Tulsa is besieged by a major race riot, in which white men (several of them in Klu Klux Klan robes) are seen murdering black residents in the streets. The focus of the sequence is one little boy who is smuggled out of town when his parents put in him in the back of a delivery truck - a truck which narrowly avoids a massive bombing that leaves Greenwood in flames.
It's a violent and thrilling way to open Watchmen set the stage for show's examination of race relations - but if you thought it was just fantasy meant for fictional version of America Watchmen is set in, you'd be very wrong. In its opening sequence Watchmen recreates the infamous "Greenwood Massacre," which is a very real part of American history.
Unless you're a dedicated American History or African-American Studies major, you likely never heard of the Greenwood Massacre (also known as the "Tulsa race Massacre" or "Black Wall Street Massacre) - and that's likely the very reason that Watchmen wants to shine a light on it. The incident occurred in between May 31 and June 1 of 1921, in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, which happened to be the wealthiest black community in the US, which earned it the nickname "Black Wall Street." The Greenwood Massacre is singled out as being the worst incident of racial violence in American history - which only further highlights the point Watchmen raises about that dark history largely being buried and forgotten.
As the show depicts, whites descended on Greenwood and slaughtered black men, women and children in the streets, burned and looted stores and homes, and generally annihilated the Black Wall Street district. The riots ultimately left 10,000 black people homeless, left $1.5 million in property damage to the area and $750K losses in personal property (or about $32 million in today's prices). Additionally 6,000 blacks were arrested or detained, while 800 people had to be admitted to the hospital, and between 100 - 300 were counted as having died during the incident.
What Watchmen doesn't depict (but does infer) is the root cause of the riot: a teenage black shoeshiner working in famous Tulsa's Drexel Building was accused of assaulting the teenage white girl working as an elevator operator there. The boy was arrested, and rumors of lynching angered the black community (which was economically and politically strong) and they showed up to the courthouse in protest. The resulting conflict left ten whites (two blacks) dead - an act that brought the wrath of the larger white population down on Black Wall Street, in a show of control and superiority. Watchmen's climatic moment of the opening sequence is also woefully accurate, as witnesses reported that the white residents used airplanes launched from outside Tulsa to shoot down blacks fleeing the riots, and also drop bombs on buildings, sparking a fire that raged across the town for days.
The truly insidious thing about the Greenwood Massacre isn't that it occurred - it's how it has been covered up, since then. As stated, a fair portion of Watchmen viewers probably never new they were witnessing a dramatic re-enactment of America's worst example of racially-motivated terrorism, and that's not due to lack of study. The Greenwood Massacre was scrubbed from local, state, and national history logs - to the point that many of those alive at the time grew up never even knowing it occurred. It was only through focused study that the incident was kept in memory, and in 1996 (75 years later) the Greenwood Massacre was finally given a formal investigation by the state legislature - a bipartisan study that concluded in a 2001 report that the city officials of Tulsa had conspired with the whit mob to harm the black citizens. A serious of paltry reparations were made, including a park dedicated to the incident, in 2010.3comments
If there is anything in Watchmen's opening (and Oklahoma setting) that we are to take away, its probably the warning that history that's ignored and buried never stays that way. This is relevant to Watchmen's unfolding story about the Rorsach-theme "7th Calvary" alt-right group popping up, and their racial-themed battle with local cops and vigilantes, like Angela Abar / Sister Knight (Regina King). However, it's also hard not to notice that the Greenwood Massacre is also a fitting metaphor for Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) and his assumed victory at the end of the original Watchmen. Adrian Veidt thinks he saved the world by unleashing the giant psychic squid attack that annihilated part of the population - and then, covering up the real cause of that attack, all to to help avert World War III. However, based on Watchmen's opening, the consequences of Veidt's actions have been bubbling under the surface for some time - and will soon come exploding to the surface.
Catch Watchmen Sundays on HBO.