‘Watchmen’ Writer on Trump in Tulsa, Bad Cops, and America’s White Supremacy Problem
Watchmen saw this coming.
Some fiction offers an escape from difficult realities. Other art holds up a lens to the world we know, magnifying things we haven’t looked at closely enough. Watchmen, HBO’s adaptation of the iconic Eighties comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, fell into the latter category. For nine weeks in the fall of 2019, the limited series — developed by Lost and The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof — dealt with white supremacy, police brutality, and so many more of the problems that have come into sharp focus for America in the weeks following police officers’ killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans. The show presented a version of American policing where cops wore masks to conceal their identities and were able to get away with vigilante-style justice as a result. And, in time, it revealed that its police force was really just another arm of the white supremacist movement that cop heroine Sister Night (Regina King) thought she was fighting.
When President Trump announced plans to conduct a rally in Tulsa — site of the Greenwood massacre, one of the worst incidents of white-on-black violence in American history, and the event that kicks off Lindelof’s version of Watchmen — life’s imitation of art became too much to ignore. We reached out to Watchmen writer Cord Jefferson, who co-wrote the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” which revealed that Watchmen‘s first masked vigilante was secretly a black man. Jefferson — who also recently worked on both The Good Place and Succession Season Two, and is currently developing a series for Apple based on his experience writing for Gawker — talked about the many intersections between what happened in the series and what’s been happening in reality over the last few weeks, about how he and the show’s other black writers discussed issues of race and policing with their white colleagues, about how television’s depiction of cops should change going forward, and more.
When you signed on to do the show, how did you feel about the idea of opening it with the Greenwood massacre?
I liked it. In my recollection, Damon didn’t know that he wanted it to be the opening of the pilot. I remember that we wanted the Tulsa massacre to be part of the season, but we didn’t know where it would show up. Then once we decided to put it in the pilot, we didn’t know it would open it. And after a lot of discussion, we decided it should be the original sin that kicks off the rest of the story. I was hugely excited by it, because it’s not the kind of thing that gets screen time. I have to admit I didn’t know how few people knew about it. But even so, I was just wildly excited to ground it in some history that is incredibly important and telling about America. To work on a genre show that grounded itself in something like that was thrilling.
On social media the night of the premiere, you had white people on Twitter at first assuming it was fiction, then being rightly horrified to find out it wasn’t, and then you had a lot of black Twitter being grateful that someone had finally dramatized this event for a mass audience.
The day after, a friend sent me a tweet with a Google Trends search for the Tulsa massacre, the graphic showing the spike overnight from Sunday night to Monday morning of how many people were Googling it. That, to me, was exciting. Seeing how valuable storytelling can be in getting people to know the history of their country and the world, it was very gratifying. It is something that deserves to be told, and if we can play a small part in helping people learn more about America, then I was really happy with that.
How did you react to hearing that President Trump was going to hold a rally in Tulsa on what was originally going to be Juneteenth?
Disappointed, but not surprised. This is a president, an administration, that has done a lot of things seemingly because they are cruel. We’ve seen a lot of people quoting that Atlantic article, “The Cruelty Is the Point.” I’m really amazed that they moved the date back [a day]. I just thought they were going to continue having it on Juneteenth.
That they’re doing it in Tulsa is one of many strange intersections between the show and what’s been happening ever since. Was Watchmen unusually prescient, or is it more that we weren’t paying enough attention to this stuff before now?
I think that history’s prescient. Particularly when it comes to racism and how black people in this country are treated. The fact that we made a show about police violence and white supremacist violence, and, several months later, we’re dealing with police violence and white supremacist violence, that’s just because we’re making a show about history. Unfortunately, police violence and white supremacist violence are something that you can set your watch to in the United States of America.
We’ve seen all this footage of law-enforcement officers covering up their badge numbers and refusing to identify themselves to protesters. The show depicts the Tulsa PD as a group of masked, untouchable vigilantes, and it feels like that’s what a lot of police in our America have become. How much of that was discussed in the writers room?
We discussed it a lot. We didn’t want to be glib… [long pause] I’ll just say we discussed it a lot. I worry that I would break the sacrosanct nature of the writers room if I talked more about it.
The show dealt with the police force, both in Tulsa in the present and in New York in the Thirties and Forties, having been infiltrated by white supremacists. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen footage of things like cops warning Proud Boys to avoid tear gas, or police officers throwing out white power hand gestures during protests. How much of that was being talked about among the writers?
We talked about that a lot. One of the immediate criticisms of the show after it premiered was seemingly that we were setting up a show in which police battle white supremacists without acknowledging how deeply white supremacist thought and behavior were a part of police forces in America. We wanted to make sure that our show didn’t dodge that reality. Particularly when you find the Klan robe in Judd Crawford’s closet and, in the sixth episode, when Will Reeves discovers that his fellow NYPD officers are members of a white supremacist organization.
In the finale, Senator Joe Keene Jr. gives that long, whiny speech about how the pendulum has swung too far away from white men like himself. It sounded an awful lot like things we’ve been hearing from this administration for the last several years.
“Make America Great Again.” That’s essentially what he’s saying.
When you hear that phrase — “Make America Great Again” — what does that say to you?
Anytime I hear nostalgia for the past in America, particularly for the Forties and Fifties and Sixties, that, to me, is a nostalgia that could only exist in the minds of straight, white men. For everybody else, the world was significantly worse. For black people, for every other person of color, for LGBTQ people, the United States of America was significantly more awful. The idea that America used to be great is, in the minds of a lot of people who were oppressed by America, and remain oppressed by America, just a nostalgia that we don’t get to share in. The America that used to exist is even harsher than it is now on people that look like me and other minorities and women. It feels like an incredibly misplaced nostalgia [to] me and my family and a lot of my friends and community.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been having not only a reckoning with policing, but with pop-cultural depictions of policing, and how cop shows and movies may have shaped our perception of police. How do you feel about the way TV portrays the police?
For whatever reason, in quarantine I’ve been rewatching The Wire. I love The Wire so much, and think it’s masterful on so many levels. One of the things it effectively does is to highlight the mistakes in policing and the ways police can sometimes be “the bad guys,” but it also highlights how the drug dealers and other criminals are layered, nuanced human beings themselves. The decisions they make aren’t borne out of evil or inherent badness, but out of circumstances they cannot control, that they were placed in due to a lot of inequity and inequality in America. To me, that’s a great cop show that offers nuance and layers and offers perspective from multiple points of view. On the opposite end for me is a show like Law & Order, where the cops are incredibly heroic, and most of the time out to do the right thing, and play by the rules, and catch the bad guy in the end. And I love Law & Order! I’ve probably watched thousands of hours of it, spent many a lazy Sunday watching marathons. I don’t think shows like Law & Order and Brooklyn Nine-Nine need to go away, but I think that what we need is more shows like The Wire. More shows that offer a more nuanced perspective of policing. If more shows like The Wire existed, then it wouldn’t seem like Hollywood was so in the pocket of policing in the way that a lot of people are saying that it is. For me, if you’re going to write a show about policing from now on, maybe just add some context. It becomes incumbent upon the creators who want to make shows that feel relevant to modern times, and to a diverse audience, to write shows that reflect the realities of the world, in which police and people of color are clashing pretty significantly. And a world in which police aren’t always doing things by the book, and are pretty frequently abusing people and misusing their authority. That’s all people are asking for. Why not throw some shows with a more nuanced understanding of policing to go along with Law & Order or Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
I said something on Twitter recently about Watchmen being prescient on a lot of these subjects, and someone replied along the lines of, “That show was pro-cop.” Does it surprise you that someone could take that away from these nine episodes?
It does. I think if you only watched the pilot, you might. But I don’t think there’s any way you watch Episode Six of that show and go, “That show is pro-cop.”
I rewatched the pilot this morning, and it was so strange seeing the traffic stop sequence only a few days after Rayshard Brooks was killed. In the show’s modern America, where Robert Redford is president, cops have to get authorization from headquarters before they can draw their weapons. What were the conversations like coming up with that concept?
I believe that the use of force requirements were Damon’s idea, that cops would have to call in in order to be able to use their guns. We spent the first four months of that writers room just world-building and deciding what America would look like under a Redford presidency for decades. A lot of it was coming up with what reparations would look like, what policing would look like, what police use of force would look like. It was exciting to look at what a new world would look like, to be honest. It was our own aspirational dream.
But Redford’s been president since the late Eighties in the show, and things are about as bad there as they are here. Having a progressive administration running the country for thirty years has not fixed the fundamental rot in America, it seems.
Something we put on the board early on is a quote that I heard, that I did not come up with myself: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” So what we were trying to get at was, in this new world, in which Robert Redford is doing things to restore some of the things taken from black people, to black people — particularly reparations for racial violence — that increasingly level playing field would cause lashing out from the white community. All of a sudden, the white community would say, “Now you’re oppressing me,” when it’s just leveling the playing field. That’s something we’re seeing play out in real life. The number of people in polling who will say that the United States is out to get white people, it’s shocking. Of course, that’s absurd, but they’re looking at rights increasing for people of color, for women, for other minority groups, for LGBTQ people. So in their minds, because you’re giving more rights to other people, it’s like their rights are diminished — as if rights are a zero-sum game. That’s what we were trying to get at in the show.
Damon has used this phrase a lot: His big concern when making the show was, “This isn’t my story to tell.” When you first met with him to talk about what the show was going to be, how did you feel about the idea of this story being told this way by a white showrunner?
I was excited, because it felt like somebody putting his money where his mouth was. Damon told me very early on that he wanted an incredibly black writers room, that he wanted to hire a lot of black writers, that he would have never felt comfortable taking this project on if he didn’t have a big staff of black writers working on it with him. I knew out of the gate that he was very, very thoughtful about this, was handling this with care — not only in the way he was going to write it, but by virtue of the fact that he was hiring a bunch of black writers to join him. I was a Leftovers fanatic when Leftovers was on, so I probably would have worked with him no matter what. But he allayed any fears I might have had by saying this was something he wanted to hire a lot of black people on. He was very candid with me that this was the most diverse writers room he’s ever had. He really wanted to make sure that he got it right instead of just paying lip service to the idea that diversity was important, that he was following that principle.
How did having such a diverse room play out in terms of the black writers in the room bringing a different expertise to these issues than the white writers had?
It was really interesting, because there was such a diversity of opinion. One of the white writers, Jeff Jensen, his father was a police detective. I think his father caught a serial killer, too.
Yeah, the Green River Killer.
So he came from a background where he saw his dad do a very impressive, heroic thing as a police officer. And then there were others of us who had a different opinion about policing and what it accomplishes in America and does to black communities in America. There were never shouting matches, but there were definitely moments where we got into heavy arguments about what policing is like and what we wanted to say about policing on the show. Another incredibly valuable contribution was from Christal Henry, who’s a black woman but was also a police officer in Chicago. So she’s a person who has both perspectives: of a cop, but also of being a black person in America. The things that Christal had to say in those discussions were also challenging and helpful and super interesting. Damon has said, and I believe this to be true: Just as the original text of Watchmen is a Rorschach test for people, this show is a Rorschach test. You take from it what you want to take from it. There’s different ways to perceive things, and different ways to walk away from some of the storylines believing. I think that him throwing in all of those different perspectives and viewpoints, not just on policing, but on storytelling and America in general, was his way of getting at a show that was complex in those ways.
One of the things Damon told me that was difficult for him on the project was listening. Specifically, he said, “There was a willingness to listen, but it was really hard to do that. Once I started actually doing it, versus saying that I wanted to, that was the transformative moment when everything started to click into place.” How did you experience that as a writer working under him?
I think that the degree of difficulty to take on Watchmen was high — particularly for someone like Damon, for whom this story is so dear to his heart. I think he truly, truly adores Alan Moore and Alan Moore’s original comics. He was holding onto this project really tightly, because it was so precious to him. I always knew he was holding on tightly out of care and concern that he wasn’t making something that destroyed this thing he loved so much. I can’t think of any specific instance in which he was unyielding to suggestions, but that may have been some internal neuroses that Damon had and didn’t share with the rest of us. I’m not speaking out of turn; I’m sure he would gladly speak about his internal neuroses. Something that I can think about, for instance, that was a moment in which Damon was holding on pretty tightly, was using the N-word in Episode Six. When I wrote that in the script, Damon balked. He and I had a conversation in which he said, “I don’t know that I can use this word on the show. I can’t put my name on anything that uses this word.” And I said, “This is a lynching scene. We are showing brutal violence against a black person. And I think that this is what these characters would say in this moment. I understand you feeling uncomfortable with that, like that isn’t your word to use. But this is one of the reasons you hired me and other black writers. So in moments like this, we can talk to you, and you can listen to our perspective, and allow us to challenge you in a way that gets you out of your comfort zone.” That’s a moment that I can think of Damon being very apprehensive about something and having to listen to the black people in the room as we talked him into things. But I never felt like Damon wasn’t valuing the black writers’ perspective, or like we walked away from any conversation feeling he was unwilling to listen and learn from me or the rest of my colleagues.
Does the fact that you were able to make this show give you more hope for what’s possible in the traditional TV creative process? Or does the industry require a more radical rethinking as much as policing does?
No, I don’t think we should defund Hollywood or abolish Hollywood! [Laughs.] I think that even if you are not convinced by morality — and what I mean is that, even if you are not a person who believes that you should give opportunities in Hollywood to black people and women and queer people and Latino people, that that is something that should be happening to give a voice to people who have been historically oppressed — I think there is no denying the fact that the quality of entertainment improves when you have a diversity of opinions in a room on a project. I have only worked on shows in which that is really important to people. So I’ve only worked in rooms in which a diversity of opinion and thought and hiring women and people of color has been of primary importance to the showrunner. And I think the quality is improved by that. There’s no arguing that. Even if Hollywood and entertainment people don’t want to do the morally right thing, if we speak to their business interests, you say it’s just good business in the long run. The quality of the shows will be better if you highlight black voices and queer voices and Latinx voices and women’s voices. The more that you include and diversify your staffs, the better work you’re going to get, and the more money you’re going to make. People are ready and hungry for stories from people that are like them. There’s a lot of people who have been underserved by Hollywood for a long time.
Another odd intersection between Watchmen and reality has been when mayors of cities, starting with Washington, D.C., have had streets painted with “Black Lives Matter” murals that often look like the Watchmen episode titles floating over a scene. What did you think when you first saw that?
I loved it. It is incredibly cool. I would love to see more concrete action besides just painting “Black Lives Matter” on streets, to help rectify some of these injustices we’re seeing. But just from a purely aesthetic point of view, it’s cool.
And did the Watchmen connection occur to you when you saw it?
Of course. I don’t know if that’s what they had in mind when they did it, but I’ll forever think of those block letters in that way.
Finally, I want to talk about you doing this and The Good Place and Succession all on top of one another. What was that like going among these three shows with wildly different tones, that are all in different ways talking about how broken society is?
For me, if there is some connective tissue between those shows, it’s showrunners I respect who are very committed to making stuff that feels additive to the world, and feels unique and interesting. That’s always what guides me. I don’t mind jumping around from genre to genre, from comedy to drama, half-hour to hour. All I want to do is work on stuff that contributes to the world and entertainment and the conversation in a way that feels unique and interesting. Sometimes, you want to turn on the TV and zone out and not think about the world. I have those shows I turn on when I want to text and look at Twitter and watch casually. But when I think about what I want to work on, I don’t want something where you shut off your brain when you watch it. I want something that makes you think about the world, and about your own life. As different as those shows are, that’s something that connects them: that grounded nature, and putting a lot of ideas in front of somebody, and forcing them to think about them.
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