This past June, Ta-Nehisi Coates sat before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell to testify about HR 40, which would commission a group to study reparations. In his remarks, Coates reminded McConnell and by extension the rest of the country, around the importance of the country addressing its whole history, citing how that White American history cannot be.
It would take essentially, an imagination by the House to see the utility in studying reparations. Just studying it. But that’s the state of the country’s stagnation around collectively moving forward; it has required a reimagining of who we are required to be and what we could potentially become. Yet that’s continued to be a stalemate; regardless of the many entreaties to our conscience, no amount of protest, speeches, or political rallies has shaken us hard enough to let some things go and see that there’s potential a better way forward, maybe even several better ways.
There was a belief that in certain arenas outside of politics there might be hope for charting such an imagination, this decade’s pop culture offerings have done little to reimagine what America could look like moving forward. This hasn’t been for lack of attempt. The 2010s have given us Ava DuVernay’s Black American trilogy of Selma, 13th and When They See Us which asked us to imagine what it says to the world about who America is and how long its campaign of terrorism has been against Black Americans. In between that trilogy came Black Panther and most recently Queen & Slim. The first imagining a world where Black people vibrated with power and joy that reached out of the screen and into the Black zeitgeist. The latter sought to imagine telling an allegorical tale about Black love, police brutality, activism and the many ways that PTSD has nuzzled itself inside of the Black experience.
Disparately, these are patchwork statements about Black experiences and identities. They stretch narrative approaches, generations, and roles, and they’ve produced a variety of conversations ranging from the examination of Black justice, activism, pain, resilience and love. They’ve also dutifully sought to capture an accuracy around history and experience; serving as archival work in a society that tends to erase the granularity of our stories and injustices.
But HBO’s Watchmen, which just completed what’s intended to be its singular season, is perhaps the only pop-culture vessel we’ve had this decade that’s successfully woven all these elements together. Inspired by the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons 1986 graphic novel, the Damon Lindeloff series was a quilt of brilliance, weaving together our very real past and combining it with an alternate contemporary 2019, one where the notion of reparations, lineage, power, and representation–all elements of the backbone of American conversations to and through Obama, right into our present Trump era–have been woven together to tell a comprehensive story. In its final chapter “See How They Fly”, the show’s hypothesis about American politics and sentimentality is made clear: for us to move forward, power must shift to the country’ “meek”, and Watchmen spends 9 chapters making a play at the dismantling of white power and supremacy. It is, of course, the stuff of dreams and imagination, but that’s exactly what’s made this series so enthralling. Taking what we know about our past in terms of Tulsa and the Black Wall Street Massacre, turning it into a version of Black American 9/11, or telling us what we continue to know–that the ones sworn to protect and serve are just as often intentionally not interested in doing so–it made turned a collective angst and frustration and gave it something wildly radical and imaginative: justice.
In Watchmen, brilliant white men are sent to purgatory; they have their past haunt and claim their lives; they seek power through entitlement only to have it sometimes quite literally blow up in their faces. They lie. They kill. They build open coalitions in the light of day and convene in the thick of night and eventually all of that crumble.
Watchmen got something right about these times that we’ve been in; for a very long time, we’ve been a country of masks. We’ve long reveled in the notion of justified white vigilantism; of a society that’s composed of hidden agendas, motives, identities, beliefs. We have had terror revisited upon us to maintain a sense of law and order for generations, and the show makes good on the notion of everything from grand conspiracies, manipulations and exquisite planning for revenge, domination and maintaining power. Much of this is seen through Sister Night, Regina King’s character that proves to be the entire saga’s crux. King’s performance speaks to this notion of masks; literally donning one during the series, but also working through various ways that she must wear an emotional one at work, at home, in public, around family, peers, coworkers. What’s perhaps most revelatory about the series’ ending is that it’s a testament to Angela’s ability to sit on the identity of a much greater truth, and how much of that is grounded in not just power, but love too.
In the thrall of all the mysteries about who, what, where and even when Dr. Manhattan is, Watchmen manages to also be a Black love story, and one about pulling together the trauma and relationships that span time and even disrupt the construct of it, to make a whole. The series has gotten some criticism for how it employs this; “This Extraordinary Being” was perhaps one of the finest hours of pop culture TV this decade, yet for some audience members its depiction of generational trauma, the peril of being a Black police officer, of living a life covered in masks, was not as jarring as seeing that Hooded Justice was not only Black but bisexual. The reaction, at least in social media circles, was akin to the type of outrage seen in response to The Last Jedi; a weakening of a superhero trope or narrative; a “lessening” of the heterosexual male image; further proof of a Hollywood agenda intended to weaken and discredit the Black man in mainstream media. It made for an ironic viewing of this series that steeped itself in conspiracies and masks as plot points; it suddenly made Watchmen, for some audiences, irrationally culpable for the same actions somehow. The show was somehow suddenly unmasked for something more nefarious than a racial justice and empowerment fantasy; it suddenly became a traitorous bait and switch by Hollywood media to further destroy the Black man. It proved that for all our sense of justice, repairing, civil rights and representation, there is still a segment of us that lack the imagination, even in fantasy, to see another world, another way forward.
But that sort of blame shouldn’t be put at the feet of Watchmen. Despite all the bluster made for and about representation, about a pop-culture fantasy world that’s lurching forward, the Black experience and story still haven’t quite taken hold in our households. Black Panther has been a lone standout, but the rest of the fantasy landscape for Black people has been woefully anemic, with the decade’s biggest fantasy and hero films–Avengers, Suicide Squad, the last Star Wars trilogy–still relegating Black people, mainly men as there have been no Black female heroes, to a familiar role of shepherding the white heroes to victory, playing the role of sidekick, or not being romantically or sexually realized. The biggest reward still is an ongoing sense of obligation and duty; of fighting a never-ending war inside and outside the story. What seems like a much greater insult is the notion that Black people–whether in space, in superhero HQs, in fictionalized African countries, in times of joy or distress–are not allowed to not only be fully in power but in love too. Fantasy genres have still made our most persistent power invisibility. Watchmen, with Angela and Cal, Will and June, there are both stories of heroism and love, in a genre that regularly doesn’t afford commitment to anything other than violence and power.
What Watchmen does is akin to what we will likely need in the next decade; a sense of what Coates implored the House to consider in his remarks. To tell a new story, to create a new reality moving forward, to perhaps heal and feel whole, we should start with at least imagining being able to tell a wider pop culture history that includes the notion that quite anyone can be the hero. It was a series that reminded us that in so many ways, our truths are still so often hidden behind masks.