HBO's 'Watchmen' Is Set In An Alternate Universe, But It Opened With A Real-Life Attack Many Of Us Never Learned About

When I tuned in to last night's premiere episode of Watchmen, Damon Lindelof's sequel/remix of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' iconic graphic novel from the 1980s, I thought I'd be in for equal parts superhero action, mystery, and world-building. But I was not expecting that world-building to begin by whisking audiences back to a real-life American tragedy in which hundreds of black people were killed, businesses were destroyed, and bombs were dropped from the sky.

Judging from the reaction I've seen so far, I'm not the only one who didn't know that Watchmen's Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was a real event. Below, you can learn more about the actual event and how its depiction in the episode came to be.

The Watchmen comic establishes that the story is set in an alternate reality, and though the show is set in that same reality, the pilot's harrowing opening scene was taken straight out of our real history. The scene depicts a young black boy's family trying to get him to safety in the midst of the carnage happening in the streets; it has shades of Superman's origin story (something Matt Singer wrote about over at ScreenCrush earlier today), but unlike the destruction of Krypton, this chaos really happened. Here's a Vox video from earlier this year which explains the history:

If you're not able to watch the video, this piece at Vulture does a good job of summarizing why many of us never learned about this in school:

For decades the event became the subject of a wide-ranging cover-up involving suppressed newspaper back issues and missing police records, an attempt to erase an ugly stain from Oklahoma history. Only in 2001 did the state of Oklahoma establish an investigative commission to get to the bottom of the incident that ravaged the prosperous, predominantly black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, concluding that it left as many as 300 residents dead and 8,000 homeless in the span of 18 hours. The short version: a black, teenaged elevator operator was falsely accused of sexual assault, sparking tensions that culminated in white Tulsa residents all but destroying the neighborhood and slaughtering many of its residents — even attacking by plane.

Lindelof first heard about this event from this article from Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic called "The Case for Reparations," because it's not widely covered in schools. In fact, the outlet says that as of this year, the massacre is still not being taught in Oklahoma classrooms.

From a production standpoint, Nicole Kassell, who directed the pilot, did a great interview (also with Vulture) about staging the opening scene, and she explained that as horrific as the imagery was that appeared in the show, they filmed some other things based on real life which didn't make the cut: "There was a dog that ran by with its tail on fire. There were white spectators just watching. You know, white women just came to see the show." That's clearly horrible, and it looks like the elaborate ploy to cover this up largely worked...until now, when thousands of people learned about this tragedy from an extremely unlikely source.

Watchmen airs on Sunday nights on HBO.