Watching “Watchmen” as a Descendant of the Tulsa Race Massacre
September 20, 2020
In HBO’s “Watchmen,” Louis Gossett, Jr., plays Will Reeves, who one woman says appeared to be a stand-in for her grandfather, a survivor of the Tulsa race massacre.Photograph courtesy HBO
ast October, when Marilyn Christopher sat down in her Manhattan apartment to watch the première of “Watchmen
,” she was seeking an escape. A science-fiction fanatic, she had spent a lifetime devouring Robert Heinlein novels and seeing “Star Wars
” and “The Matrix
” in theatres multiple times. She enjoyed the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore
’s iconic graphic novel, so the HBO series
seemed like a safe bet for an entertaining Sunday night. For Marilyn, the right sci-fi yarn was a ticket to an unknown new world, where the trials of living in New York could be briefly forgotten. But as the opening scene of the series depicted a small boy sitting in a movie theatre, while his weeping mother banged discordant keys on a piano, Marilyn felt herself crash-landing back in reality. “That’s Tulsa,” she recalled thinking. “That could be my grandfather. That’s the Tulsa race riot
Marilyn watched as the little boy and his parents attempted a frantic escape from Greenwood, the prosperous neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, during the Tulsa
Race Massacre, in 1921. On her TV, bullets cracked the air, bombs fell from airplanes, fires enveloped buildings. Tulsa had never been brought to life with such gruesome glamour. To Marilyn’s eye, the boy appeared to be a stand-in for the grandfather she’d grown up calling Daddo. He was a massacre survivor whose mother, Loula, had owned a theatre in Greenwood and whose father, John, had owned an auto-repair shop. Daddo’s given name was William Danforth Williams—the “Watchmen” boy goes by Will Williams, though he changes his last name to Reeves after the attack on his home. As the family on TV fled for their lives, Marilyn’s real-life family business flashed across the screen: the Williams Dreamland Theatre. Williams Auto Repair made a cameo, too. Even some of the sequence’s smallest details, like a brief shot of a white man brandishing a stolen leopard coat, appeared to be taken from oral histories that had travelled from Daddo’s lips to academic books to popular culture.
It was all a little too real for Marilyn. She turned the show off after the opening spectacle and has had little motivation to revisit it since. “Once I saw dead Black bodies, I said, ‘I don’t want to watch this,’ ” she told me. “I know that I should appreciate this, but I guess I didn’t.”
On Sunday evening, “Watchmen
” will vie for twenty-six Emmy Awards, as the most-nominated television show of the year. Implicit in the widespread praise for the show is the righteousness of its mission, in bringing a long-buried story of racial terrorism to a wide American audience. Other shows, such as HBO’s more recent hit “Lovecraft Country
,” have also woven the nation’s hidden history of racial violence into tales that veer into sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. Authors who were the forebears of this style of storytelling are receiving unprecedented mainstream attention this year—the writer Octavia Butler
, who wrote novels that married historical and science fiction, often centering on race, entered the Times
best-seller list for the first time, this month, fourteen years after her death. Black history is becoming big business.
For people who have lived with the weight of these stories for generations, though, it is a different thing to watch ancestors you knew and admired seep into the public consciousness as silhouettes of their actual selves. “Our legacy—I don’t think it’s perceived as something that’s ours,” Marilyn told me. “If you have passion and a desire to share and illuminate this point of time in history, that can be taken advantage of, if you’re not careful.”
For Marilyn, the oldest of five siblings, the Williams Dreamland Theatre has been a presence in her life since she was growing up in North Tulsa. She recalls doing chores at her grandfather Daddo’s house and seeing a small oval paperweight perched on the living-room credenza, showing the two-story brick building owned by her great-grandmother. “The Only Colored Theatre in the City,” the ornament boasted. Daddo would tell her not to touch the paperweight when he saw her inspecting it. Even as an eight-year-old, she knew that it was a precious thing. Her grandfather told her about how his mama had owned a majestic theatre, but he never went into detail.
It would be decades before Marilyn and her siblings learned the full scope of their great-grandmother’s accomplishments and heartaches. Loula Williams, in fact, owned three movie theatres, launching two other Dreamlands in the nearby towns of Okmulgee and Muskogee. Sometimes, the theatre in Tulsa served as an entertainment hub—residents could gather there to watch vaudeville acts, boxing bouts, and the biggest silent films of the day. Other times, it served as a community center, hosting events like the graduation ceremony for the neighborhood high school. Occasionally, it was a strategic headquarters, where Greenwood leaders would coördinate plans to battle the legal encroachments of Jim Crow. No other location in Greenwood served so many needs in so many contexts.
On June 1, 1921, the Dreamland and a confectionery that Loula operated were among the more than a thousand structures that were burned to the ground during the massacre. W. D. Williams, or Daddo, was one of the thousands of black people hauled off to an internment camp. The Williams family slept on the floor of a relative’s house for weeks, then lived in a tent on top of their burned-out property as winter approached. Eventually, they rebuilt, but they went into steep debt attempting to reclaim the prosperity that was stolen from them. For Loula, it was more than money that was lost. She fell into a mental and physical decline after the attack and never recovered. She died in 1927, before she was fifty years old. “She was so devastated by losing all that, she just went into a state of depression and she just never came out,” Jan Christopher, Marilyn’s younger sister, told me.
Daddo never conveyed the family history to the Christopher children all at once. They picked it up in snippets of conversation and chance encounters with his collection of Greenwood memorabilia. “We didn’t sit around the dinner table talking about the Tulsa massacre of 1921,” Marilyn recalled. “Because who would?” When Daddo served as a primary source for Scott Ellsworth’s “Death in a Promised Land
,” the first book-length treatment of the massacre, Marilyn’s mother, Anita Williams Christopher, bought all five siblings copies. Jan took the book to college with her during her freshman year, as evidence she could show people of the stories that had floated around her growing up.
Since W. D. Williams died in 1984, his children and grandchildren have quietly continued the effort to preserve the family history. But, because of their early spirit of generosity, their artifacts now serve as a kind of collective visual shorthand for both Greenwood’s wealth and its destruction. Rare images of early Greenwood that the Williams family once possessed are now housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
. Photos of the Dreamland that W. D. Williams shared with historians now float aimlessly across the Internet. A photo of John, Loula, and W. D. in a 1911 Norwalk car appeared in a brief “Watchmen” montage, narrated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
describing Greenwood’s success.
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Although descendants of the Williams family appreciate that “Watchmen” has brought the story of Greenwood to a wider audience, they’re also keenly aware that elements of their family’s history have played out onscreen without their involvement. Marilyn didn’t feel that her story had been co-opted, because the life of the television character Will Reeves, as a police officer and later a costumed crusader in a planet-hopping save-the-universe plot, ultimately branches far away from Daddo’s. Charles, the youngest Christopher sibling, saw the huge interest in the show as a promotional opportunity for other projects centered on the Dreamland. For Jan, the fact that the show leverages the Williams family’s story through their buildings without making their relatives into fully developed characters showed an interest in telling “their story in our place, not our story in our place.” “Loula Williams should be a character in Black history,” Jan told me. “They should probably go ahead and talk to us and actually incorporate her as a real figure instead of trying to get around it just by what they’re seeing on the Internet.”
amon Lindelof, the co-creator of HBO’s “Watchmen,” first read about the Tulsa Race Massacre in a brief aside in Ta-Nehesi Coates’s 2014 article
“The Case for Reparations.” “I think the first thing I did after I read the Coates article is I just Googled it,” Lindelof told me in an interview. After an Internet search brought him to the Wikipedia page for the event and some news articles about it, Lindelof ordered a book by Tim Madigan called “The Burning
,” from Amazon, and quickly read it cover to cover. It was in “The Burning” that Lindelof first learned about the Williams family and the Williams Dreamland Theatre.
The Dreamland made sense as the initial focal point for a “Watchmen” adaptation. Just as the original 1986 graphic novel embedded other comics within the overarching narrative, the TV version would include movies and TV shows that reinterpreted, subverted, and sometimes obscured the true history of the “Watchmen” world. John and Loula Williams were only two of many prominent Greenwood residents, and so the Williams family onscreen became O. B. and Ruth, composite characters whose backstories also drew from O. B. Mann, a Greenwood entrepreneur and First World War veteran, and other Black Wall Street historical figures. The writers of the show decided that the Williams Dreamland Theatre’s marquee should be presented exactly as it had existed historically, in order to lend the scene more authenticity. “If we actually felt like we were using the family as those characters, the real Williams family, then it would have been incumbent upon us to reach out and include them,” Lindelof said.
The notion of reaching out to the Williams family or other massacre descendants during the development did not occur to him, Lindelof said, though the production team did consult with the Greenwood Cultural Center and used various primary-source documents. “It didn’t feel like it was appropriation. It felt like we were telling history,” he said. Entertainment conglomerates, such as Warner Media, HBO’s parent company, have used trademark and copyright laws to protect their intellectual property for decades. For large corporations and wealthy families, such legal maneuvers are easy. For average people, seeing their stories come to light is often assumed to be payment enough.
Since “Watchmen” first began filming, in 2018, on the ninety-seventh anniversary of the race massacre, a variety of Hollywood projects about important Black figures, such as Harriet Tubman and Fred Hampton, have been released or green-lit. Many of these projects explore Black people’s role in shaping the nation during the century between the Civil War and the civil-rights movement, a period that has received little attention from Hollywood. The trend seems likely to accelerate, with studios vowing to diversify their writers’ rooms and production schedules in the wake of reckonings over institutional racism within their ranks. At the same time, the number of streaming platforms and scripted television shows vying for customer attention has reached record highs. The newfound interest in Black stories is long overdue, but it will inevitably lead to escalating tensions between the companies profiting from those narratives and the families depicted in them.
In March, Netflix premièred “Self Made,” a miniseries about the Black hair-care business titan Madam C. J. Walker. Two months later, A’Lelia Bundles, the great-granddaughter of Walker and the author of a biography
that was optioned to produce the show, wrote a withering critique
of the show’s historical inaccuracies in the Undefeated. That’s hardly a new issue in Hollywood, but the stakes feel higher because of the constant sense of precarity that follows any allocation of resources to Black people—the feeling that criticizing one high-budget production on neglected Black history will inevitably doom the rest. “I understood that it was a minor miracle when any project made it from book to script to screen, and all the more so when the main character and most of the cast are black,” Bundles wrote. “I also knew that my discomfort, if I voiced it at that moment, might have turned into a headline that harmed the premiere.”
“Watchmen” has not been the target of such public criticism, and the show is quite adept at building a generational story about Black superheroes. But, from the people who knew the show’s setting best, I sensed the same strain that Bundles described. Black custodians of history are always expected to magnanimously welcome an ever-expanding tent of newcomers, even if they’re not earning a dime for having their stories reproduced as mass entertainment. “When I’m done dealing with what’s going on outside, I don’t really want to come in as my form of entertainment and see my experience reflected back to me,” Marilyn said. “Unfortunately.”
Lindelof acknowledges the paradox of wanting to tell a story that, at the end of the day, isn’t his. It’s a tension that writers struggle with regularly. Lindelof donated nineteen thousand dollars to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, an organization that is spearheading the building of a history museum in the heart of Greenwood, using a mixture of government funds and private donations. (Warner Bros. Television Group made a separate donation.) Lindelof also participated in the ninety-ninth-anniversary commemoration of the massacre, organized by the commission, and he plans to be in Tulsa for the hundredth anniversary, barring travel restrictions brought on by the coronavirus
. “My responsibility was to make sure that I didn’t just use this for entertainment,” he said. “I could have told any story that I wanted to about Watchmen, but, because I was including a piece of actual history, it’s now beholden upon me to contextualize it as much as possible and be an emissary of and advocate for this knowledge.”
As Black stories become more lucrative, though, the boundaries guiding who should be allowed to profit from such narratives are shifting. On September 1st, a group of massacre descendants sued the city of Tulsa
, seeking reparations for the 1921 attack and mass disinvestment from the Black community that followed. While the primary claims in the suit center on the city’s negligence in protecting Black lives and property, the suit also alleges that the city is enriching itself by leveraging Greenwood’s history for tourism dollars without sharing the bounty with massacre survivors and their descendants. “The problem is not that the Defendants want to increase the attraction to Tulsa, it is that they are doing so on the backs of those they destroyed,” the suit claims. The descendants are requesting a court injunction that would prevent the city from using massacre victims’ likenesses in promotions or earning revenue from the history museum currently under construction without paying victims’ descendants or placing money in a group compensation fund.
Marilyn and other members of the Christopher family are not involved in the current suit, but they understand the grievances. Their mother, Anita, was among the plaintiffs in a 2003 reparations suit that was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge. Many of the family’s most prized personal effects have already wound their way into commercial products like “Watchmen.” The family is now trying to use the artifacts they’ve retained, such as a series of letters that Loula wrote to her son in her declining years, to help them participate in the Black-history boom currently taking place. Charles, Marilyn’s youngest brother, is hoping to produce a play about Loula’s life after the massacre. He’s looking into locking down exclusive rights to Daddo as well. “The only thing we can do is get in front of telling our story, so somebody else is not marketing our stuff on the streets of D.C. with our people’s faces on it, printed on there, ‘Dreamland Theatre, Tulsa!’ ” Charles told me. “We won’t get reparations, but we can sell our own merchandise.”
is a journalist in Tulsa who is writing a book about the city’s Greenwood district, and a newsletter about neglected Black history called Run it Back.
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