The following contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 1.
Prior to the premiere of Watchmen, HBO and creator Damon Lindelof could have given viewers 100 guesses as to how the show based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ iconic superhero novel would begin. And precisely 0 people would have guessed “with a 1920s era silent film detailing the exploits of Bass Reeves: The Black Marshal of Oklahoma.”
But as you now know (if you honored the spoiler alert at the beginning of this article and actually watched Watchmen episode 1) that is precisely how the show begins. Yes, even the familiar yellow Watchmen text logo appears as part of the grainy silent film before the plot carries on to show about a minute and a half of a Bass Reeves adventure.
We now know thanks to HBO’s supplemental Watchmen material that the film is Trust in the Law! a fictional in-universe silent film directed by Oscar Micheaux. In the brief clip that opens the series, Bass Reeves (played by Jamal Akakpo) chases down a man on horseback and lassoes him up. A panicked congregation exits their church to ask why this hooded stranger has captured their sheriff.
“Your Sheriff is the SCOUNDREL who has stolen your cattle,” Bass Reeves declares. “He doesn’t deserve the badge.”
When the citizenry rightfully ponders who this stranger is, Bass reveals his hood to which a young boy excitedly squeals “Dontcha know who this is? Bass Reeves! The Black Marshal of Oklahoma!” Then of course, the camera pans out and Watchmen puts its viewers through the ringer of witnessing the horrors of the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921. More on that here.
But before all that ugliness, it’s actually a shrewd choice to have Watchmen to open up with a brief vignette of a masked vigilante fighting crime with the full backing of the law, because after all the episode goes on to introduce officers of the law who wear masks to deliver justice anonymously. In fact, the brief clip of Bass Reeves is so perfect for the opening of Watchmen that it seems like a fiction concocted by Lindelof and the writers to open the show.
Here’s the thing though: Bass Reeves isn’t a work of fiction. Bass Reeves was a real person and his story is that of one of America’s all-time great badasses. Reeves was the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. During his long and storied law enforcement career he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 criminals and killing 14 people in Western frontier style justice “self-defense.”
Reeves was born into slavery in Arkansas sometime in 1838. During the Civil War he was able to escape from his owner George Reeves and lived as a fugitive among the Cherokee, Creeks, and Seminole Native American tribes. Ten years after slavery was abolished, Reeves received a job as a deputy U.S. marshal due to his mastery of multiple Indian languages. Reeves’ time as a sheriff included tons of incredible “stranger than fiction” moments including the time that he had to arrest his own son for murder.
Reeves was the consummate American cowboy lawman, right down to his gloriously thick black mustache, and his exploits read like something out of frontier legend. In fact, it has long been rumored that Reeves was the inspiration for the fictional Lone Ranger, despite the fact that character has always been portrayed as a white man.
In 2015, HBO, the very network on which Watchmen now airs, commissioned a miniseries about Bass Reeves from Morgan Freeman, Lori McCrery, and James Pickens Jr. There haven’t been many updates since it was announced and the project is likely dead. Another Bass Reeves movie project remains alive and well at Amazon Studios with a script from Chloe Zhao (who will direct Marvel’s The Eternals). Reeves has turned up as a character on TV shows such as Drunk History, Timeless, and Wynonna Earp as well.
The point being for all this is that Bass Reeves is a critical part of American culture that huge swaths of American are generally unaware of…much like the Black Wall Street Massacre. By introducing him as a meta character within its first two minutes, Watchmen makes so much clear about its intentions. While the graphic novel dealt largely with geopolitics and the world at large, this iteration of Watchmen seems to have narrowed its focus to more domestic issues, namely our country’s original sins of slavery and racism.
And if nothing else, letting Bass Reeves and his righteous brand of frontier justice set the tone is just a cool thing for a TV show to do.