The Creator of HBO’s Watchmen on Trump in Tulsa, Masks, and Who Should Wield Power Now

When Damon Lindelof started working on this show, he had no idea how relevant it would become.

Photo of a Trump supporter waving a giant Keep America Great flag with Trump's face on it, blending into a still of the Tulsa massacre depicted in HBO's Watchmen
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos via Win McNamee/Getty Images and HBO.

When President Donald Trump announced his first post-COVID public campaign rally a few weeks ago, he stepped directly into a messaging mess: His plan was to do it in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Juneteenth, the day in 1865 on which a Union general finally made it to Galveston, Texas, to read Abraham Lincoln’s orders freeing the slaves to still-enslaved people. After a good deal of controversy—evidently Trump had never heard of Juneteenth but is now taking credit for raising public awareness of it—the date was changed to Saturday, June 20.

Pushing the rally back by one day still does nothing to remedy the public health nightmare around holding a large event in a closed space in the middle of a pandemic; a reality that is sobering and consequential. But as the nation is roiled this month by new shockwaves over racialized police violence, white supremacy, and the erasure of black history, the decision to hold the rally right near the site of one of the worst black massacres in U.S. history is still a gut punch, even if it’s not on Juneteenth. The Tulsa massacre, which led to hundreds of deaths and a ravaged community, happened in about 24 hours in 1921 in Greenwood, a thriving Tulsa neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.” A lawless white mob razed the neighborhood and killed hundreds of black residents, and the entire incident was all but erased from American history. In fact most Americans know virtually nothing of the Tulsa massacre, and many only learned of it for the first time this spring, after watching HBO’s Watchmen.

The acclaimed series, which last week won a Peabody Award, was quite deliberately set in Tulsa, after the show’s creator, Damon Lindelof (who is a friend), stumbled across the lost history when he read “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Lindelof, who maybe didn’t plan his series about masks, white supremacy, police corruption, and violence to be quite as eerily prescient as it has proved, agreed to talk to me about the significance of Tulsa, history, heroism, and race. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dahlia Lithwick: I wondered what you made of the fact that Donald Trump’s defenders claimed this week that he genuinely had no idea about either Juneteenth or the Tulsa massacre. Not to get all meta, but isn’t the erasure the problem, as opposed to the defense?

Damon Lindelof: This is in no way a defense of the president’s ignorance, but I think it’s highly possible that he had no idea about either of these events. I’ve only known about what happened in 1921 for a few years now, and I learned about Juneteenth from an episode of Blackish, which I could safely assume Mr. Trump does not watch. What was disturbing is what he said (and didn’t say) once he was filled in. While I am all but certain his intention was not to raise the American consciousness, I imagine there are a lot of people who heard about Juneteenth and the massacre for the very first time because the president decided to have his rally on that specific date in that specific place. I do appreciate a good backfire.

I’ve read about your decision to make Watchmen a show about race and also about your desire to connect it to Tulsa, but I wonder, beyond the story of the 1921 massacre, if there are things unique to Oklahoma or Tulsa that you learned as you dug into this project.

We learned a lot about both Tulsa and Oklahoma. … Obviously, our focus was on the events of 1921, but my greatest regret is that we didn’t spend more time showing Greenwood before it was decimated. The story of how it came to be is fascinating—oil boom!—as were the men and women, just one generation removed from enslavement, who built it up from scratch. We also did a disproportionate amount of research about the musical Oklahoma, which led us down quite a rabbit hole.

You have said that you felt a ton of pressure to get the Tulsa massacre “right” on film because nobody had really done it yet for the big screen. Tell me something you put into that extraordinary opening scene that not everyone caught, something you used to try to tell that historical story.

Nicole Kassell, who directed the pilot and executive produced the entire series, spent hours upon hours upon hours on that sequence. We agreed that the only way to do it with true authenticity was to not take any liberties whatsoever. … Everything we committed to film had to be a factual account from the actual massacre. One detail people might have missed is that Greenwood had an all-black fire department that was prevented by whites from putting out the flames consuming their neighborhood. … The image of those men in uniforms being held at bay by Klansmen, hands above their heads while they watched the city burn, was a direct eyewitness account from Nicole and her team’s painstaking research.

Watchmen paints a unique picture of police, power, extralegal authority, and race. What, if any, connection was there between your original thinking on reparations and where the show ultimately ended up on race and law enforcement and the possibility of justice? Where does that fit in with the present and really new conversation we are having about the police?

Personally speaking, I feel reparations, specifically for slavery, are a necessary and essential part of acknowledging the systemic white supremacy that infects every American institution to this day. Unfortunately, the logistics (how) and implementation (who) have become barriers for even starting to have that conversation. Our story was an opportunity to imagine an America where a version of reparations had already been enacted and then imagine the corresponding backlash from those who felt it was unfair to be punished for the crimes of their ancestors without wanting to acknowledge they were continuing to benefit from those crimes centuries later. The original Watchmen was a text that offered no easy solutions. … It presented the idea of “justice” through a smudged lens. We were more interested in the idea of why someone wants to be a cop or a vigilante than we were in providing judgment on whether they were “good” or “bad.”

Can you talk about the complicated questions raised by masks, including who gets to wear them and what they signify about criminality and maybe even about being American, that the current masked moment has unpeeled for you?

The whole masks thing has really thrown me for a loop. The idea we became intoxicated with thematically is that the wearing of a mask was a bit of a paradox in that it hid your identity while simultaneously revealing it. That is to say, the mask would conceal your face, but it would show a part of your personality by virtue of what kind of mask you chose to wear. To that end, the masks hid and revealed the personal trauma of the characters. … Angela wears the Sister Night mask because that’s the blaxploitation movie she was holding when her parents were murdered. … Wade wears the Looking Glass mask because he was in a hall of mirrors at the moment of his greatest personal shame.

The context of masks in our real world today seemed cut and dry at first, as their only use was to protect against COVID-19. But in the ensuing weeks, it has become a way to signal what “side” you’re on. I think we’ve all accepted there’s a divide in American culture, but I never thought it would be about something like this, especially when we see all the countries that have gotten control of the spread did so when everyone wore masks. The calculus has somehow become “strong people don’t wear them, scared people do,” which literally makes me want to never stop screaming. Fortunately, said screams are muffled by my mask.

Last question: The original Watchmen seems to have settled on the decision that ultimate power, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan power, is safe in nobody’s hands. You seemed to be more sanguine about that kind of power, if it’s wielded by, say, Regina King. This feels like something we are thinking about really differently this summer. How do we feel about that kind of power, not as between competing white men, but in a group that never held it before?

Hmm. This feels like a trick question to get me to confirm that Angela may indeed have inherited Dr. Manhattan’s powers even though we didn’t see what happened when her foot made contact with the surface of her swimming pool. I will make no such confirmation. That said … if someone were to have godlike abilities, that someone should be Regina King.

HBO is making Watchmen available for free starting today, to honor Juneteenth.