How 'Watchmen' Uses Superheroes To Explore The Complexity Of Being Black In America

I didn't know what I was expecting when I was settling in to watch the first two episodes of Watchmen, "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice" and "Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship." But boy, was I shocked. Consider me immediately entranced. I don't just like the show because it's entertaining. As a thinker, I love that Watchmen has built a layered world in which so many of society's ills can be examined and critiqued. I mean, the original comic book did the same about Reaganism, the Cold War and '80s excess, didn't it?So welcome to unnamed weekly Watchmen column, which is designed to examine some of the overarching themes within each episode and dissect them. If ever there was a show that needed a guide, it's this one, and while I'm not claiming to be an expert on everything, I'm willing to put my best foot forward and provide some of my thoughts. These thoughts will, of course, be based on my own personal experiences, but I hope you can find something of use to take away and think about as you watch and re-watch the series yourself. So to kick things off, I decided to play catch-up and tackle the first two episodes at once, since both of them examine the complexity of being Black or otherwise oppressed in America. All spoilers from the first two episodes are on the table from here on out.

The perceived danger of Black self-actualization

If there's anything I've learned from my 31 years as a Black female and my near-decade as a pop culture critic, it's that the establishment has a real fear of the oppressed classes working towards self-actualization. That fear can be seen outside of the show in a myriad of ways, including the amount of fanboys who are upset whenever any property decides to say something relevant to the times, including Watchmen's decision to delve into topics about Black America. But that fear is definitely a character in its own right within the show, from the very first scene of the pilot.That first scene, of course, showcased a young Will having fun watching a film about America's most famous lawman, Bass Reeves. The film doesn't have Reeves saving Black people, though. Instead, it tells a story that is probably closer to Reeves' reality; he was relied upon by White settlers to keep the peace between them and Native Americans, as well as infiltrate and bust up gang activity. Like in the film, Reeves used a number of disguises to do his work, making him one of the first, if not the very first, person to utilize the act of "going undercover," now a common-place saying when it comes to intense police work. He was ahead of his time. The film Will watches shows Reeves not as a cowering Black man catering to White whims, like many Black characters were portrayed in old films, but as a statuesque hero, acting as an independent, strong-willed, and, yes, self-actualized, man in America. I know this because I researched him for my upcoming book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans (which is available for pre-order now). Even though I didn't end up including him in the book, I was pleasantly surprised to find Reeves staring back at me on screen, just like how little Will probably felt seeing Reeves, larger than life, in the silent movie theater. Here was a Black man in the 1920s, seen as an idol to Black and White people alike. But Reeves self-actualizing spirit, which is almost catalyzed in little Will, is put in immediate threat thanks to the Ku Klux Klan, who destroy Will's community of Greenwood, Oklahoma, otherwise known as Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street, another bit of history I cover in my book, was a town unlike what any that had come before it and, unfortunately, has yet to be replicated today. Before the riots, Black Wall Street, part of the greater Tulsa area, was a center of Black self-actualization. Black men and women owned businesses and created wealth for themselves and their families. It was one of the few places in America where Black people were able to flourish. But, with the status quo as it was in the 1920s, having Black Tulsans that were richer than their White counterparts was seen as a threat, and all it took was the suggestion of a crime for the KKK to take up arms and slaughter hardworking families who only wanted the same thing White Tulsans wanted—a better life for their children and a way to stake a claim in society.In Watchmen's alternate timeline for Tulsa, however, the U.S. does try to right some of the wrongs that happened to Black Wall Street's descendants. Thanks to President Robert Redford, there's an act called the Victims of Racial Violence Act, otherwise known by its racial slur as "Redfordations." Again, there's the threat of self-actualization at work. While the descendants are owed what was taken from them generations before, there are still people who see that payment as a government handout, another form of the nation supporting a supposedly "undeserving" class. It's no different than how people today view Affirmative Action as a handout just for underrepresented groups, or how the real conversation around reparations, the act of paying back African-American descendants of slaves, gets bandied about by those who want to see it as a distraction instead of as the country owning up to its shameful history of slavery. To top it all off, the 7th Kavalry, a group that models itself after the vigilante Rorschach, has resurfaced. It's a group that's also not unlike the KKK and the Neo-Nazis who stormed Charlottesville, Virginia. Like the name suggests, theKavalry believe themselves to be the knights of righteousness, restoring America back to its "proper" order. Again, the threat is of a Black societal class that has the same rights and privileges as any White person. To aKavalry member, that threat would be inherent in something like the Black version of Oklahoma that was performed. How scary it must be to someone like a Kavalry believer, to see Black men and women incorporating their own flair into what was traditionally a White musical. How shocking it must be to see Black people performing in an empowering way instead of in a mentally damaging way just to placate a scared White audience. Especially terrifying for the Kavalry is that Black people, and people of all races and backgrounds, now seemingly rank as highly as White people within the Tulsa police force. If you look at the racial makeup of the officers, you'll see a lot of different shades and genders. That kind of diversity can only lead to an incident like the one we saw in beginning scenes, where a Black officer is stopping a White man for acting suspicious, and the White man has to make sure he keeps his hands on the wheel to show he doesn't have a gun. As it turns out, the man was, in fact, aware of his fear of being dressed down by a Black officer, which is why he revealed himself to be a Kavalry member and tried to kill him. 

The oppressed as pawns

However, whereas the Kavalry see Blackness and Otherness in general as a threat to White society, the second episode still points out that no matter how much self-actualization has happened in this alternate timeline, Black people and oppressed people as a whole are still seen as pawns in a political game. We get a flashback to Will's father, who fought in the first World War. Even though he was fighting for his country, America only saw him and others like him as expendable bodies they could use to get the job done. Meanwhile, America's enemy, Germany, wanted to exploit Black soldiers' anger about the conditions they faced within their country to lure them to the other side. Did Germany really care about the Black soldiers' well-being? Of course not. But again, it was all about getting expendable bodies to use to win the war. Regardless of which way they looked, Black soldiers were being played. In the modern day, we see a Black man running his newspaper stand talk to the young Black man delivering the morning papers. They are talking about the upcoming presidential election, but they're talking about it in a way that's very familiar to me as a Black person; they were trying to figure out who was going to screw them over the least. Clearly, the two men didn't see it for either candidate, which is much like how it is in real life. Recently, I was having a conversation with my sister, which turned to politics. She mentioned how Black people vote for the person who is going to do the least damage instead of voting based on philosophy. We don't have time to debate over philosophy, she said. We know we're going to get screwed either way. We just have to choose the person who we can put up with the best. The luxury of voting based on philosophy is, indeed, a luxury White voters can indulge in, since historically, the country is already set up to work in their favor in the first place. It's sobering, but it is true. Black voters, like the two men at the newspaper stand, usually know they are going to be used as chess pieces on a board, once again acting as expendable bodies to win a battle. The game is one we have to fight harder at to win. Sometimes, though, "The Man" isn't the only one holding us down; sometimes it can be our own people. I don't know what the endgame is for Will and his journey with Angela, but I do think that the relationship can be read as another symbol of an oppressed class being used as a pawn. But this time, it's the oppressed oppressing its own. Even though Angela is a powerhouse of a police detective, she doesn't have the most power in her relationship with Will; Will does. Will knows what all the puzzle pieces are and is stringing Angela along for the ride. He's using her for something. But for what, we don't yet know. But he needs her to finish his game, whatever that is. He needs her as his pawn on his chess board. Another endgame that's hard to make out is the "Lord of a Country Manor" and his household of mysterious clones. We don't know how he ties into the overall story, but one thing is already clear; he doesn't hold life in high regard. In fact, he seems to view it as a plaything he can control. He kills his own creations without batting an eye, and then reuses their body parts for some yet unknown monstrosity. The power imbalance is, of course, present in the lord's relationship to his clones; he is their master and they are living dolls who look human but lack sentience. But the imbalance goes even further. This lord is a rich white man. Who knows how that wealth was procured—is some of it slave money or some other type of nefarious venture? That remains to be seen. He has been able to live a full life of luxury, a life many in can't, regardless of race. And yet, he's still not satisfied. He has become so bored with life that he's forgotten his own humanity and wants to play God. This time, the pawns being used are literally expendable, created in the lord's own home. These clones can be seen as representative of the actual oppressed classes who are seen as objects to be used for personal gain, without any regard as to how said classes feel about their own lives.I don't know how many of you reading this article are avid fans of Watchmen. Otherwise, if you've been to either IMDB or Wikipedia, you would understand why this manor lord plays with life. I'll refrain from revealing the lord's real name for fear of spoiling something for the unsuspecting viewer. But if you are familiar with the original graphic novel, then the reason why this manor lord seems to disrespect life makes a lot of sense. Watchmen has never been just a random comic book story meant to merely entertain. It commented on popular social and political culture in the past, and it is continuing that legacy with this new iteration. Be mindful of all of the lessons it wants to teach.