Why ‘Watchmen’ Began with the Tulsa Race Riots

HBO’s Watchmen  adaptation began with a scene of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. In the Watchmen world, American history takes a different path once superheroes enter the pictures. For example, America wins the Vietnam War with the help of Dr. Manhattan and Nixon remains in office for five terms. 1921 is before the superheroes emerge so the Tulsa Race Riot occurs in Watchmen as it did in real life. 

Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof and star Regina King
Damon Lindelof and Regina King | Rich Fury/Getty Images

Damon Lindelof, who created the HBO adaptation of Watchmen, spoke with Television Critics Association reporters at a WarnerMedia party over the summer. He explained why he wanted to feature the Tulsa Race Riot in the show and how Watchmen would address race in its alternate 2019. Watchmen airs Sundays on HBO.

Why race was the issue of HBO’s ‘Watchmen’

The 1986 Watchmen comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was a response to Cold War politics of the decade. Lindelof wanted to think about a modern day political issue.

“All I can say is that the original Watchmen dealt with incredibly real issues that traditionally comic books weren’t doing,” Lindelof said. “Comic books deal with supervillains. Watchmen dealt with nuclear armageddon. I feel I was compelled to tell a story about what I feel nuclear armageddon is in 2019, what’s basically proliferating every single conversation that I’m in.”

Of course, to explain any further how Watchmen deals with race and addresses the Tulsa Race Riots in the present would be a spoiler.

“Obviously the pilot starts in the way that it does,” Lindelof said. “It features an African-American star and the lead character is played by Regina King. I feel like to have a black lead in a television show like Watchmen and never deal with race is more irresponsible than dealing with it. So this is that exploration. Whether or not I’ve been successful is to be determined but it’s the story that I wanted to tell.”

Damon Lindelof was nervous about addressing race

So, Lindelof felt race was the issue that should be driving a 2019 Watchmen. He was also acutely aware he was potentially unqualified to do so.

“I’m totally acknowledging that I live in a bubble as a liberal Democrat but I’m deeply affected by all of these things since I was a very young child growing up on the east coast,” Lindelof said. “S I got nervous about telling a story that dealt with race because I’m a white man and I have to understand what that is. There’s a part of me that feels like I should stay in my lane.”

Damon Lindelof - Watchmen premiere
Watchmen series creator Damon Lindelof | CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

Ultimately, it felt more irresponsible to avoid race in Watchmen.

“ At the same time, I felt like ‘could Watchmen be about race?’ was a question that I was interested in tackling,” Lindelof said. “The show is an exploration of that idea. Now, it’s not only about race.”

Diverse ‘Watchmen’ writers were exploring race with Damon Lindelof

Fortunately, Lindelof had backup to explore the themes he wanted to explore in Watchmen

“Our writers room was at any one time, there are usually about 12 writers on Watchmen in different shifts. White men have been in the minority. It’s only been four of us. So the women and people of color have been the dominant voices in the writers room, behind the camera as well once we got to Atlanta. I think that of the nine directors, two were directed by white [men] but that doesn’t give me carte blanche, pun intended, to do whatever I want. You can’t just go to a person of color and say, ‘Do you approve this message?’ and then they put their stamp on it and it’s okay, but I was constantly hyper aware of what I know and what I don’t know and told the story accordingly. So hopefully it will feel authentic.”

Damon Lindelof, Television Critics Association interview, 7/24/19