The Face Behind the Mask: Race, Trauma and Storytelling for a Pandemic
If you are like me, you may not have known anything about The Watchmen--the comic book or universe. And yet the Watchmen TV series, masterfully led by Regina King as Angela Abar, offers an unforgettable entry into the world of costumed heroes and alternative American history, through the eyes of a black woman. Now is as good a time as any to watch, or re-watch Watchmen for the 5th time. Director Damon Lindelof, well known for Lost and The Leftovers, has created yet another series that throws us into the aftermath of catastrophic, life-changing events, and asks us to swim to the finish line. The series takes us beyond the comic book kitsch of the 2009 film of the same name, into the current reality of a nation still divided by racism in 2019!
The May 31st- June 1st, 1929 Tulsa Race Riots, may have seemed like an unlikely place to start a story about superheroes, but Lindelof draws parallels between the trauma of violent racism and a catastrophic “Dimensional Incursion Event” featured in the original graphic novel. In 2019 everyone in this alternative universe has experienced the trauma of 11/2, and even those who were not born at the time continue to live with its effects. Baby squids periodically drop like rain for example, and people have simply adapted to living with them. It sounds strange or ridiculous, yet we live with a level of gun violence, that many people in the world find absurd. Throughout the season we see how trauma not only impacts an individual but how our collective trauma can reshape our entire world view. Events such as The Holocaust, 9/11, or a global pandemic for instance, fundamentally transform every aspect of life for those who experience it, and even future generations who have not. While our fiction characters simply accept raining squids, it parallels how many of us have simply accepted the real life trauma of racism and racists policies as just a daily inconvenience of life.
In the show, Angela’s grandparents continued to experience racism and segregation through time, and across the country, that ultimately separated their family. Angela loses her parents to ‘rebel terrorists’ in Vietnam, now the 51st state, after Dr. Manhattan kills millions to end the war and bring democracy. After she is orphaned in Vietnam, her grandmother tracks her down and prepares to take her back to Tulsa Oklahoma. Angela’s childhood rivals that of any great origin story such as Batman, Spiderman, or even Harry Potter. But Angela doesn't become that type of superhero: she is a black woman, in the real world! She becomes a cop in Vietnam, arguably one of the most dangerous places on earth. She is bad ass!
On the anniversary of her parents’ death she sits drinking in sorrow, in the same bar where Dr. Manhattan had previously witnessed a death he didn’t stop. He is like a demi-god super hero whose kind of a nihilist, and makes him kind of bad at the job. The Dr. Manhattan of the film is not seemingly concerned with justice, only ending nuclear war at any cost. Angela, like many people, hates that Dr. Manhattan has used his powers to kill millions, in some twisted pursuit of peace. Unlike our traditional understanding of the hero, The Watchman heroes are complicated, with no clear moral compass, willing to use violence and vengeance to reach their end.
In Tulsa, Angela is a masked cop on the hunt for members of a white supremacist organization. After ‘The Seventh Kavalry” attacked cops, the cops tell the public they need masks to protect themselves. But after Angela’s police chief is lynched, she begins to question whats really behind the mask. Angela like other Watchmen characters has come to blur the lines of right and wrong in the pursuit of self righteousness. Not only does she hold the status of unapologetic badass hero, but we see there is something different about Angela. She still wants to be the type of cop that saves people, but she's stuck between loyalties.
As the detective Sister Night, she is covered in a full black hooded coat and black face mask, with black airbrushed over her eyes. She is all black except for a neck high white top. She looks like an homage to a 1940s hero of ‘The Minute Men’, with whom Angela shares a special connection. We realize that Anglea has chosen to create her masked hero after a blaxploitation film of the same name she liked as a child in Vietnam. She is righteous and clearly on the side of a higher power. More than just a character, Sister Night emerges as a fighter for truth, equality, and everything right. Even though Angela has been running around with masked cops in secret warehouses beating people to bloody pulps, hiding her deep desire to do what is right. A value instilled in her by her veteran father.
To find out who her police chief really was, Angela is forced to confront her own family's identity and history. Her grandfather leaves his memories in pill form, Nostalgia, for her to see his past. The trauma of losing her family, and attempted assassinations on her life, have left her raw, angry and on a warpath. Angela may blend in with the other masked cops, but she has long been on a mission to cover her own scars. She takes all her grandfather’s pills in defiance of FBI Agent Laurie Blake, as she closes in on Angela suspecting her of covering up the crime. Angela is thrown into a cinematic tunnel of afro futurist time travel conflating the memories of her and her grandfather, spanning the 100 years of his life and hers. During her comatose Angela leaps in time experiencing the past and present at once.
The Watchmen is full of Easter eggs, both figurative and literal. They are a metaphor for life, and a symbol of the bond between Angela and Dr. Manhattan. When Angela awakens from the treatment still confused by her memories, she confronts Lady Trieu and learns of her actual intention. The millennium clock is her countdown to destroying Dr. Manhattan and creating a new world. And she’s not the only one, confirming The Kavalry have infiltrated the police force to do the same.
Angela rushes to confront The Kavalry, but this time without her mask. She is on a mission to save the last person she loves, the last person she has tried to keep safe and hidden, Calvin, the greatest love of Angela’s life. Once home she reveals his true identity, as the blue demi-god Dr. Manhattan. She literally sets Jon free and he returns to his blue state, only now with Calvin's face. Seeing his features, typical of African and African American men faces, elevated to the face of God, was yet another reminder of how important it is to see black heroes and heroines represented in media.
This series is significant for a film industry that began with the demonization of black men in films like Birth of a Nation, to the image of a revered superhero and godlike character, as an African, American man. While we may not live in a world of racial equality yet, for a major network to take a beloved comic book, and turn it into a commentary on our notions of fear and humanity of black men, showed growth for an industry that banks on white heroes. For the writers, producers, and executives to come together to create this image represents a real shift at every level. Not to mention leaving viewers breathless with the stunning beauty.
The story further pushes the notions of heroes, by making Dr. Manhattan the one who has been hiding and in need of being rescued by the very human black woman, Angela Abar. We see them as invincible, but the threat to Dr. Manhattan is as real as the threat black men experience with police force in real life. Jon has learned from his past relationships that he can’t change human nature, so instead he decides to change himself, to remain present, by hiding. But it is his love for Angela that allows him to finally make a sacrifice worthy of saving humanity, revealing who they both truly are. Angela is the hero for our times. She is a real woman, a black women, who believes in justice, and motivated by a deep love.
It is not just a matter of traumatic events, or crime fighting DNA, that has brought Angela to this moment, but the love between her and Jon. Keeping with her legacy, she is defiant in the face of death, and decides to fight back. Angela runs out to shoot The Kavalry, but it is only a matter of seconds before she is out of bullets and surrounded. It is then Jon teleports himself to the shootout and vaporizes the whole lot before one final member turns on the beam and transports him to his ultimate fate. Turns out it was a love story all along.
In the final scenes, Angela sits with her grandfather as he confirms her suspensions. He says “He could have done more.” Angela doesn't know what it means, but when she returns home to clean up, she discovers one remaining egg touched by Jon. The stories of trauma, legacy, love and life all converge in the final moment when Angela consumes the egg and takes a step into a pool. The mask is off, and for the first time Angela is able to walk in her full understanding of who she is, and where she comes from. It is not some super natural force that makes her powerful, but rather finding what was already inside.