Jamelle Bouie: ‘Watchmen’ dares to imagine a righteous black vigilante

(Mark Hill | HBO via AP) This image released by HBO shows Regina King in a scene from "Watchmen."

This essay includes spoilers for the sixth episode of HBO’s “Watchmen.”

You can think of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” graphic novel series as an extended answer to a set of questions about the superhero as an idea and an ideal.

What kind of society produces masked, costumed vigilantes? What kind of person puts on the mask to begin with? How do people, ordinary and extraordinary, react in the face of the incomprehensible, from total annihilation to the otherworldly?

Since Moore and Gibbons’ original series was published in 12 issues from 1986 to 1987, other writers and artists have created within the universe they built. Warner Bros. released a “Watchmen” feature film in 2009, directed by Zack Snyder, and DC Comics has produced prequels and spinoffs. But all fell flat. Not because they weren’t skillfully made, but because they missed the point. “Watchmen” is a compelling story, but the essence of the series is its critical eye — Moore and Gibbons’ attempt to show us something about our world through skillful deconstruction of a fictional one.

Where past adaptations have failed, I think HBO’s “Watchmen,” currently airing in its first season, succeeds. It shares the critical eye of its predecessor and attempts to answer the same questions. But where Moore and Gibbons were writing in the context of Ronald Reagan’s America — with its greed and militarism and Cold War tensions — showrunner Damon Lindelof and his collaborators are working in today’s context of racial violence and resurgent white nationalism.

HBO’s “Watchmen,” in other words, is trying to analyze masked vigilantes through the prism of race and racial injustice. And while this has been evident from the beginning — the series opens with a harrowing dramatization of the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre, in which a white mob destroyed the affluent black neighborhood of Greenwood, killing hundreds and displacing thousands — it has become even more apparent with Sunday night’s episode, titled “This Extraordinary Being.”

In it, we learn the origins of Hooded Justice, the first vigilante hero in the world of Watchmen. In the original comics, the identity of Hooded Justice is a mystery that goes unsolved. In HBO’s “Watchmen,” we’re treated to speculation in the form of “American Hero Story,” a show within a show. It depicts the in-universe past as a gritty, violent action series — a callback to and satire of Snyder’s “Watchmen,” which used the thematically rich source material as fodder for high-definition brutality. The Hooded Justice of “American Hero Story” is a powerful, hyperaggressive vigilante, clad in hood and noose and clearly — underneath it all — played by a white actor (Cheyenne Jackson).

But through an extended flashback, what we learn from this latest episode is that he was in fact a black man: a young New York City police officer in the late 1930s named Will Reeves (Jovan Adepo). We’ve already been introduced to an older version of Reeves. A survivor of the Tulsa massacre, he’s the grandfather (played by Louis Gossett Jr.) of the show’s protagonist, Angela Abar (Regina King). He’s also the prime suspect in the murder of Tulsa’s chief of police — the present-day event that sets off the show’s narrative.

After arresting a white man for setting fire to a Jewish deli, the young Reeves is beaten and nearly lynched by three white officers, who are leaders of the city’s Ku Klux Klan. As he walks away from the site of the attack — bloodied and draped in a hood and a noose — he sees a mugging. He could walk away. Instead, he acts. He fights off the attackers. The next morning, the local paper notes the altercation. Hooded Justice is born.

Practically impotent as a black police officer, Reeves has power to act while under the hood. But the mask doesn’t conceal everything — the skin around his eyes still marks him as black. And so he wears makeup and gloves to conceal his racial identity, to let the public believe that their hero is a white man.

Reeves eventually joins a group of costumed vigilantes and works with them, hoping the entire time they will assist him in his fight against the Klan. But they refuse. His lover, a hero called Captain Metropolis (Jake McDorman), believes he is delusional — that there’s no threat to the city’s blacks other than themselves. Reeves takes things into his own hands. He finds the Klan hideout. He kills everyone, including his fellow cops. He burns their building down and returns home. His wife, horrified by his violence, leaves with their son. And he decides to quit. Hooded Justice disappears.

I’ve left out a lot of details, but this is the heart of the narrative. And more than anything else in the series so far, it’s an attempt to grapple with the questions Moore and Gibbons pose in the original comic. Again, what kind of society produces masked vigilantes? Who takes on the mask?

The answer? A society shaped by profound injustice, where the victims have little recourse. Reeves could have been killed as a child in Tulsa; he could have been lynched as an adult in New York. Nothing would have been done because nothing was ever done. In the show (as well as our own world) there were few consequences for racial violence and terrorism.

That society would produce someone who sought to strike back, someone who would try to deliver justice to those whose power in a racial caste system puts them beyond accountability. The people motivated to take justice into their own hands would be those for whom the law is not an option for themselves and their communities.

It’s not a plot contrivance that Hooded Justice is black — it couldn’t be any other way. A society that brims with the unresolved pain and anguish of racial trauma can’t help producing a reaction. Hooded Justice is violent and uncompromising. He beats and kills and acts in contempt of the law. But HBO’s “Watchmen” suggests his crusade is fundamentally righteous — that his brutal work is necessary.

Our society does not have masked vigilantes meting out punishment to racists. But if there were a Hooded Justice — if our history of racial violence and trauma had produced an avenger, of sorts — then “Watchmen” seems to say that whether or not it’s right, it is justified.

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

Return to Story