Please note: This blog post contains spoiler alerts.
If you have not yet seen it, check out HBO’s Watchmen, starring Oscar-winning actor Regina King. Like me, you may not be a big fan of most superhero shows or movies. Except for Black Panther (and oddly Thor), the genre has never appealed to me, probably because the storylines are fantastical, and there are almost no Black women superheroes. What care I for the travails of Superman?
That changed a couple of weeks ago when I watched Regina King as a different kind of superhero on HBO’s Watchmen. King plays Angela Abar, Oklahoma bakery owner by day, masked hooded avenger/cop by night. King’s character, Sister Night, possesses “superhero fighting skills” and dons a great, matrix-style leather coat. What’s not to love?!
Watchmen’s Abar lives in an alternate version of the present-day United States. It is 2019. In Abar’s world, the U.S. won the Vietnam war, and Richard Nixon served as POTUS for over 20 years. (Watergate never happened, and Nixon changed the laws on presidential term limits. ) Former actor Robert Redford is the long-serving current POTUS. Also, some Black people received reparations – or “REDFORDrations”- for the atrocities committed against us. And some white folks are pretty pissed about that. Watchmen, like Officer Abar, are police officers and masked warriors who serve and protect. Abar’s unit, in particular, fights domestic terrorists and hate groups.
See Episode 6
Semi Spoiler Alert: Watchmen opens with a bang in episode 1, by helping us visualize the Tulsa, OK massacre. However, I started the series at episode 6, which people are describing as one of the best TV episodes ever. In episode 6, Officer Abar takes “memory pills” which cause her to live through key moments in her grandfather’s life. Gramps was a survivor of the Oklahoma race riot and a police officer in the 1930s. Abar sees grandpa going through some things because of his skin color and insistence upon fighting for equality.
We get to experience those very same moments of terror through both grandpa’s eyes and through the eyes of our shero, who, like the viewer, is of the 21st century. Because Regina King is an amazing actress, Angela’s “lived memory experiences” as her grandfather are especially effective. We feel the pain and terror that Angela feels as she takes the blows of a beating or other threat.
For the comic book experts, the Watchmen comic has been around since at least the 1980s. HBO’s 2019 version speaks to our times; it tells stories about America’s racist past and America’s racist present. As stated in The Guardian:
“In Damon Lindelof’s adaptation, the tale’s 1950s cold-war storyline is spun into a look at the rise of a white supremacist group in a parallel US…. [T]he idea of white supremacy as a guerrilla force is not exactly fantastical, given the extent such militias play in U.S. history.”
A Supershero for Our Times
They say that you get the superhero that aligns with your times. Superman emerged to beat the Nazis. Angela Abar/Sister Night is a superhero for today’s complicated times. First, she’s fighting for justice and equality, and against white supremacist terrorism. Second, thanks to Watchmen’s creators and Regina King, Angela is both a “super” and a real Black woman. She is a cherished wife to her husband and a loving mother to two orphaned white kids, who lost their murdered parents to hate. When she is with her family, her actions are infused with warmth, understanding, and love.
Angela Abar is also smart, and deeply concerned about the world around her – even when acting as her alter ego, Sister Night. When her fellow Watchmen, white and Black, seek vigilante justice against a white supremacist camp for its alleged, but unproven murder of their police chief (Episode 2), Sister Night is the Watchman who tells her fellow officers, “we don’t have to do this,” even though she herself was almost killed by the same group. Sister Night wants real justice; not just the good feelings that may come from ravaging an enemy.
That said, when a white supremacist in the crowd comes after one of her fellow officers with a baseball bat, she stops him dead by beating him relentlessly with her fists. Sister Night has rage, just like many Black women. She’s the classic flawed American hero; she’s us.
Watchmen is compelling because King and the other actors on the show are excellent, and the themes of the show are topical. The show deals with racism and domestic terrorism against Black and other people in a divided society that is running amok – despite laws and policies against hatred and intolerance. The Watchmen are fighting an organized hate militia. (We get it. Many of us are “Watchmen” of sorts today, fighting hate through our actions: how we raise our children, how we treat each other, and what we require of our friends, employers, and politicians.) The storyline is neither emotionally nor literally easy to follow, but that’s part of the show’s appeal. Watchmen compels us to frequently ask the question, “what if?” In our crazy times, this is an important question to ask.