The following contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 1.We have a spoiler free review right here.
HBO’s newest iteration of Watchmen contains a lot of things familiar to fans of the original graphic novel, including squids, the Minute Men, and…. Tulsa, Oklahoma?
Yes, one of the show’s more curious changes is choosing an atypical setting for this next go-around in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ superhero universe. Nothing against the fine people of Tulsa Oklahoma, the Tulsa zoo sounds lovely and the Golden Hurricane is still technically alive in the American Athletic Conference, but Oklahoma is rarely the first choice for stories about masked vigilantes. So what gives? Why would HBO and Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof choose Tulsa as the battleground for one of pop culture’s most anticipated superhero sequels ever?
Part of the answer is simply that Tulsa is relatively ill-trodden ground in fiction. Lindelof said as much to Tulsa World, saying, “It seems like everything always takes place in one of two places, and (I wanted) to ground Watchmen and make it feel real, (because) I’ve always thought Watchmen was about America. So I had it in mind to pick a more nontraditional place to set the show, and I was thinking ‘How would that look?’”
But there’s another, more important reason at play. As those who have seen Watchmen episode 1 now know, the series opens up with a flashback to 1921 to depict a horrific and shameful event in American history: The Black Wall Street Massacre.
Black Wall Street was a prosperous black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century. On May 31, 1921 mobs of white Oklahomans attacked black residences and businesses and essentially razed the district to the ground. The attack was carried out by ground and air, killing at least 36 people, injuring hundreds more, and causing more than $30 million in damages.
“When I first heard about the massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa of ’21 I couldn’t believe that I was a grown adult and I’d never ever heard about it before,” Lindelof tells Den of Geek. “The more I researched it, the more I was just shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t know anything. At the same time as sort of like, ‘Well, I’m in a position now to potentially put this in a piece of popular entertainment and inform people about this actual historical event, but I can’t be exploitative about it. It needs to be important.’”
Lindelof read about the Black Wall Street Massacre in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case For Reparations” around the same time he had been offered the opportunity to shepherd a Watchmen TV series. The two ideas couldn’t help but meld together in his head.
“It felt like it was very similar to what the way that a lot of superhero stories or comic book storytelling starts, which is it’s the destruction of the world that you know. This felt a lot like Krypton or Bruce Wayne losing his parents. If you’re giving an audience vegetables, they’ll push them to the side of the plate, it has to feel like it’s as delicious as the rest of the meal. And more importantly, I think the more that the season goes on, more pivotal we’ll see Tulsa ’21 was to our storytelling.”
Deciding to tell the story of Tulsa 1921 and the Black Wall Street Massacre is one thing, however, but filming it is an entirely different challenge. Watchmen pilot director Nicole Kassell says that due to the traumatic and sensitive nature of the scene, she asked Lindelof to draft a letter to the cast and crew just to acknowledge the difficulty of what was to follow. A priest was also brought in to bless the set.
“The subject matter is so disturbing and it’s based on true events,” Kassell says. “We were actually filming on the 97th anniversary of the event. So it was very powerful. It was just extraordinary how invested everyone was.”
Ultimately, Tulsa, Oklahoma isn’t just the setting for the Watchmen TV show, it’s a crucial part of everything Lindelof, Kassell, and company intend to communicate with the series.