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Why ‘Watchmen’ is getting a second look for its approach to race

“Watchmen” received a prestigious Peabody Award earlier this week, but the HBO series has been on some people’s minds for other reasons, including the science-fiction concept’s parallels to recent events.

The elaborate sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking comic-book graphic novel and alternate history waded deeply into America’s racial history, and specifically, the 1921 riots against African Americans in Tulsa. That city has been drawn back into the headlines, with President Trump scheduled to hold a rally in the Oklahoma city on June 19 — a date associated with the end of slavery in the United States — after the Black Lives Matter protests of recent weeks.

“Watchmen” began, jarringly, with a dramatic reenactment of the Tulsa riot, which played a role in the show’s narrative. The present-day plot also involved a white-supremacist group, in an alternate history where Richard Nixon’s extended tenure as the president had given way to Robert Redford.

When the program premiered on HBO last October, many viewers were unaware of the history surrounding Tulsa. As the New York Times explained, much of that had to do with the violence having received scant attention in history textbooks, and having been the subject of “a shameless cover-up” by officials.

The program’s creator, Damon Lindelof — whose credits include “Lost” and HBO’s “The Leftovers” — confessed a similar unfamiliarity with the riots, saying he had first learned about Tulsa’s past reading author Ta-Nehisi Coates. “I consider myself a student of US history and I thought, ‘How did this slip through the cracks?'” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I felt incredible shame and guilt. I could have taken that shame and guilt and internalized it. Instead, I said, ‘I’m going to put that in ‘Watchmen.'”

Lindelof assembled a racially diverse writing staff, but admitted when the show made its debut that he was nervous about how its approach to race would be received. (Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.)

The series proved prescient in other ways. Part of that had to do with vigilante justice and the relationship between the community and the police, who, in the show’s world, wore masks to hide their identities (under something called the Defense of Police Act) and shield them from potential retribution.

The show also layered its story upon the plot of the original story, and the ripple effects of a traumatic, world-shaking event on the collective psyche.

The Peabodys summed up that mix of elements, lauding “Watchmen” — which is available on the new streaming service HBO Max — for offering “a frank and provocative reflection on contemporary racialized violence, on the role of police, and on the consequences of a large-scale disaster on the way Americans understand their place in the world.”

Article Topic Follows: Entertainment

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