On a Sunday in October, 2019 the first episode of Watchmen premiered on HBO, and things in the United States have been different since.
Promoted somewhat confusingly as a “remix” by writer/producer Damon Lindelof, of a comic book series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the series offered an alternative, fantastical history of the United States in the 20th century. It started with what looked like real footage of a real event – the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. For many viewers, the question was this: “Did that really happen?” In the days and weeks that followed they found the answer was a resounding, “Yes.”
Those few minutes of footage and the way the massacre was woven into the storyline amounted to an unnerving revelation. By the time of the Emmy Awards in September, 2020, the world had been roiled by protests following the killing of George Floyd, and Watchmen had 26 Emmy nominations, winning 11. Deservedly. This strange, fraught series lit a fuse and exposed an incident in American history that had been buried and ignored. Since then, the fuse has lit a fire carried forward mainly by an entertainment industry that has stopped being complacent and deferential in matters of race and is intent on a never-forget agenda.
Monday and Tuesday mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. There are, remarkably, three big-ticket shows devoted to the event airing Monday. Several others aired over the weekend. This is astonishing, really. For about 99 years, nobody knew and few, apart from a handful of historians, cared much.
Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street (Monday, CNN, 9 p.m.) is the most substantial, hard-hitting and direct. The documentary, which has LeBron James as executive producer, has a ton of archival media, contemporary interviews with people in Tulsa and includes first-hand accounts from letters and diary entries of the time. In the today-world, it delves into the search for physical evidence of the mass graves of the Black victims. It underlines that there was a thriving Black community in the city in 1921, with many thousands living in the Greenwood area, and its own business sector. It existed on the morning of May 31 and by evening on June 1, it was gone. In the course of roughly 24 hours, a white mob, helped by members of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department and the Oklahoma National Guard, obliterated a prosperous, peaceful community.
Watching Dreamland is a nerve-wracking experience and the real slap in the face is the realization that it was ignored for so long. Coming days after Republican members of the U.S. Senate demolished an effort to create an investigation into the deadly insurrection by Donald Trump’s supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, you have to worry about the U.S.’s inability to audit any of its history.
Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten (Monday, PBS, 9 p.m.) takes a more considered, solemn approach. Mainly it looks at the anniversary through the perspectives of activists and local politicians in Tulsa today, and the long, long battle even to acknowledge that the massacre happened. Reported by The Washington Post’s DeNeen L. Brown, the program sets out to give context and the context is contemporary relevance. “Stories have power and if they’re told, they can change the future and they can provide some healing,” Brown says. Her goal is to “put souls to rest,” she also says.
Tulsa 1921: An American Tragedy (Monday, CBS, 10 p.m.) is hosted by Gayle King and more plainspoken and angry than you might expect from a network special. It is emphatic about what happened and features eyewitness accounts from survivors and descendants, who share their sometimes searingly emotional accounts of the loss of family members and disintegration of prosperousness.
So, what exactly happened in Tulsa? From the three programs, fragments can be put together.
On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old Black man, taking an elevator to use a segregated bathroom, was accused of assaulting the elevator operator, a 17-year-old white woman. Some reports said he tripped and she screamed in surprise. She later told police that she had no interest in pressing charges, and nothing had really occurred. But the young man ran, and people noticed. When he was found and questioned by police, a white mob soon gathered and a group of Black men showed up to protect him. A fight broke out, and guns were fired, leaving 10 whites and 2 Blacks dead.
Next, an enraged white mob, accompanied by the police, descended on the Black neighbourhood. They attacked and killed about 300 Black residents, looted stores and homes, destroyed businesses and burned buildings to the ground. At least one privately owned airplane dropped turpentine firebombs. The result was utter obliteration. And the Tulsa massacre was obliterated from U.S. history, until one HBO drama opened with a stark depiction of what happened. That, a TV event, a slice of entertainment, started what became a robust questioning and discontent. It’s why the 100th anniversary is now a major political and cultural event.
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