Why must Black heroism in fiction be continuously made of our historical injury?
It seems we are no more than our history of suffering.
This essay contains descriptions of racial violence and spoilers for Episode 6 of HBO’s Watchmen
by Donnie Moreland
I don’t trust Damon Lindelhoff—the showrunner of HBO’s Watchmen. He’s a damn compelling writer, but he is one that often conflates philosophical inquiry with good storytelling, which can result in pretentiously puzzling television; of which I’m very familiar. That said, I can’t stop watching Watchmen (no pun intended) and that may be because, as many on Twitter have professed, Watchmen is the “Blackest” show on television.
What I mean by that is that all of the major story beats are driven by characters, events and themes which are aesthetically Black, in how writers like Richard Wright had come to argue the Black body as a solely political one. Unlike programs like Queen Sugar, which presents its Blackness—so to speak—in manners that subvert your expectations of Black experiences as themes, and plot devices, Watchmen does the exact opposite by hitting you over the head with a proverbial hammer with explicit historically violent images that scream: This is Black.
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And it is this that keeps me coming back. Constantly wondering when they will cross the line into parody or Blaxploitation, and how messy the result will be. And as we inch closer to that line with propositions that cultural trauma must be the motivator of Black heroism, we should ask why must Black heroism be made of only our historical injury.
Ahistoricism is dangerous and I am well aware that creating any Black character untouched by the legacy of The Atlantic Slave Trade—anywhere along the Diaspora—is an act of violence via erasure. During an interview with Reelblack, a Black film archival company out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Dr. Tufuku Zuberi said about ahistorical artistry, “[W]e don’t simply communicate with people, simply by our own imagination. Our imagination is in the shadow of the past.”
Zuberi’s words in mind, I realize the question is framed incorrectly. It is less a question of whether trauma should exist but how it exists. The question of how Lindelhoff uses violence, especially in relationship to Black bodies, I believe exists in one of the shows most daring reveals: The origin of Hooded Justice.
Hooded Justice is known as the first superhero of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen universe. I won’t get too deep into the lore, as I feel it is an important work of literature well worth the time of discovery, but I will say that Hooded Justice’s vigilantism is the spark that lights the flame of every iconic moment of this beloved work.
Lindelhoff, and co-writer, Cord Jefferson took this character and offered him an origin story that made him a Black man who is haunted by the memories of having witnessed his parents be murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. The man, William Reeves, becomes a police officer and discovers corruption among fellow white officers. They attempt to lynch him for attempting to discover a conspiracy, but he survives and proceeds to use the rope and hood from his assault to take on the corrupt officers—who happen to be members of the Ku Klux Klan.
This new origin story of Hooded Justice reads like Blaxploitation, if I’m being honest. A race revenge thriller in the family of films such as Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) or Brotherhood of Death (1976), where the violence is informed by history, but aggressively sensationalized for the purpose of amusement. And I’m not arguing there is something inherently harmful with sensationalizing racially oriented violence, when levity is the purpose. In fact, I believe this type of showcasing of violence can, and has been, cathartic in negotiating self-image while reconciling meaning and cultural trauma. Quentin Tarantino’s Donny Donowitz aka “The Bear Jew”, in 2009’s Inglorious Bastards is a fair example.
There is an argument that Hooded Justice’s newly canonical origin story is along those same lines. But what concerns me is that Lindelhoff is choosing to sensationalize violence against our bodies, almost argumentatively. Shouting something about America to Americans. The treatment of us and how we are remembered, shown in graphic lynching sequences and bodies left over from mass killings.
If this were a show developed to amuse, I’d be disturbed enough, but in that it exists in “allyship” almost, I’m troubled by how we exist in the imagination of Lindelhoff. It seems we are no more than our history of suffering. In advocating for our survival, it seems difficult to imagine that we deserve the dignity of subversive illustration, even in fiction where you are given the freedom of interpretation that nonfiction disallows.
The Black characters of Watchmen who experience grave violence are arguments, at best. Agents of fan service that misses the mark, at their worst. I do believe Lindelhoff chose to interpret the events of the Tulsa Massacre because he is concerned with national memory, what gets to be remembered, and what is demanded to be forgotten. It’s noble, but to the degree that Black characters are no more than the Tulsa Massacre and no more than its traumatic legacy makes me question how Black bodies exist in his imagination. And it is his imagination which I cannot escape.
Though our imagination is, as Dr. Zuberi suggested, connected to the past, Lindelhoff is in service of fiction. Not just fiction, but the story of a world which relies on history and yet asks, what if? Alan Moore’s original The Watchmen demands we explore meaning, both of heroes and heroics. Of masks and authority. But there is no limitation to the parameters of that question: what if?
When I consider meaning, coupled with the phrase imagination, I think of the words of Turtel Onli, in the book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack. In the section “The Black Age in Comix”, Onli discusses an artistic philosophy entitled rhythmism, which, in his own words, “talked about one part science, one part mysticism and one part an advanced environment derived from an Africanized thought pattern. It was about projecting what things could be, through incantation, mysticism or magic. It was also about aesthetically working to have a visual vocabulary for things to come, instead of things that were established.”
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If Lindelhoff were in service of nonfiction, then I would be less concerned with the use of violence in relationship to our bodies in Watchmen. But he is not, and yet his visual vocabulary is limited to explore Black bodies only as they have existed to absorb pain. It is strange to me that the artist who asks so many questions of his world, who is given the keys to a story that exists to inquire the consequences of possibility while in service to history—an alternative history that includes Purple Gods who inhabit other planets, intergalactically traveling squids that destroy cities, and masked vigilantism—might not imagine what might the world be like if the Tulsa Massacre never occurred. It is strange to me that this artist would not instead imagine a Black Wall Street that was allowed to flourish.
What if the Black residents of Tulsa were never stricken with such calamity? What would that mean to history? A history that includes the trauma of Slavery, still, but asks the question of how might the world look if Black folk were allowed to grieve post-emancipation? How might Hooded Justice come to exist without the visceral trauma of genocide?
Questions like these, I believe, satisfy historicism, but offer a visual vocabulary that asks, as Onli does, what can be. They allow the audience to ask how might we remember what was and what could have been. But that’s only if, in your imagination, Black folks and the violence which has befallen us function as objects to honor, and less as means to an end.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.