‘Watchmen’ On HBO: Fact And Fiction In Show’s Opening Scene Depicting Horrific 1921 ‘Tulsa Massacre’

The new HBO drama series 'Watchmen' opens with a horrifying massacre that seems like it cannot have really happened — but it did.

Regina King poses in front of the 'Watchmen' logo.
Rich Fury / Getty Images

The new HBO drama series 'Watchmen' opens with a horrifying massacre that seems like it cannot have really happened — but it did.

The new HBO series Watchmen debuted on the pay cable network on October 20, opening with a shocking, violent scene depicting a horrific massacre of African-Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. The scene, which can be viewed in a video below on this page, was so brutal that it seemed as if it could not have really happened. But as Ebony Magazine recounted — it did.

Though HBO’s Watchmen is very loosely based on the classic, DC Comics graphic novel of the same name, the events depicted in the opening scene are, sadly, based on real life. The massacre took place on May 31, 1921 — not even 100 years ago — killing an estimated 300 African-American residents of Tulsa’s Greenwood district and leaving another 9,000 homeless. Nearly the entire neighborhood was burned to the ground. Approximately 6,000 more residents were arrested.

The terrible incident is widely referred to as the “Tulsa Race Riot,” but as Ebony wrote, “the term ‘race riot’ does not adequately describe the events.”

To call the massacre a “race riot” indicates that “both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence,” according to a historical account by The Zinn Education Project.

Instead, the Tulsa Massacre was, in the words of educator Linda Christensen, “a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property.”

The Greenwood neighborhood’s black residents, many of them combat veterans of World War I, fought back. But the attack was carried out with heavy weapons, even machine guns mounted on airplanes, as is accurately depicted in the opening scene of Watchmen. The Greenwood residents’ resistance was quickly overcome by the attacking mob.

The opening scene may be viewed in the video below, but readers should be warned as the scene contains multiple depictions of violence.

Why did a well-organized mob of whites attack Greenwood and slaughter its black residents? The answer, according to Ebony, was simply “pure envy, and a vow to put progressive, high achieving African-Americans in their place.” The Greenwood neighborhood was known as “Black Wall Street,” and thanks to the Oklahoma oil boom of that era was perhaps the wealthiest African-American neighborhood in the United States.

The massacre was sparked in the same way much racial violence of that era was ignited. A young white woman accused a young black man of attempting to rape her. The accusation gave white lynch mobs and gangs of white men newly deputized as police, an excuse to “invade the unsuspecting community,” according to Ebony.

The rape allegation is not mentioned in the opening episode of Watchmen.

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Watchmen head writer Damon Lindelof and director Nicole Kassell “went to great lengths to accurately depict what actually happened” in the Tulsa massacre, according to a report by Slate.

Veneice Dunn Simms poses for a photo is Greenwood.
Tulsa Massacre survivor Veneice Dunn Simms, seen in Greenwood, Tulsa, in 1999. Mike Simons / Getty Images

But a full and accurate account of the horrific events will likely never come to light because almost soon as the massacre ended, a cover-up began. As Slate points out, the show depicts a newspaper headline reading “TO LYNCH NEGRO TONIGHT.” Survivors also described articles in the local newspaper that appeared to encourage the attack.

On the surviving microfilm copies of the Tulsa Tribune, however, at least two articles from that day’s paper are missing, according to Slate. Not even the exact number of casualties is known to history. According to some reports, the estimate of 300 could be off by as many as 100.