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‘Watchmen’ episode six: ‘This Extraordinary Being’

The real Hooded Justice is finally revealed, and his origin story is a doozy

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner, Requiem For a Nun

This Extraordinary Being, the sixth episode of Watchmen, tells the origin story of Hooded Justice, one of the Minutemen, the masked vigilantes who precede the Watchmen. In doing so, it offers both a critique and celebration of American cinema, effortlessly weaving tribute with condemnation that reaches all the way back to 1915, the year The Birth of a Nation was released.

The Birth of a Nation, of course, was director D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist film that both revolutionized the art of filmmaking with its technical innovation and served as a piece of propaganda so powerful that it resurrected a dormant Ku Klux Klan and provided the aesthetic blueprint for its real-life costuming, and justification for the group’s racial terrorism.

When Griffith died in 1948, a devoted friend was so stricken that she collapsed in grief at his memorial service. So close were the two that her children referred to Griffith as “Papa.” The friend was Madame Sul-Te-Wan, a black actress whose friendship with Griffith began when he hired her as a maid for the white actresses at Fine Arts Studios, which is where he shot most of The Birth of a Nation.

Angela Abar (Regina King) sees the world of her grandfather, Will Reeves, with Nostalgia, the drug that allows those who take it to re-experience the past.

Mark Hill/HBO

It’s a strange, wholly American relationship, this festival of mutual admiration that took place between Sul-Te-Wan, who was an aspiring actress when they met, and Griffith, whose limited view of black people continues to reverberate through media, including, if you ask Watchmen graphic novel writer Alan Moore, comic books and their screen adaptations.

Episode six is brimming with Moore’s trademark skepticism about superheroes and his ideas about how media both reflects and perpetuates an American culture of white supremacy.

This week, Moore’s thoughts on the matter, which he shared in a 2017 interview with Brazilian writer Raphael Sassaki for Folha de São Paulo, resurfaced, thanks to a blog that published an English translation of it.

“Save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race,” Moore told Sassaki. “I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”

Sister Night (Regina King) begins to feel the effects of her grandfather’s Nostalgia pills, which allow her to subconsciously travel through his memories.

Mark Hill/HBO

Co-written by Cord Jefferson and showrunner Damon Lindelof, and directed by Lost alum Stephen Williams, episode six provides a story that makes sense of Moore’s words, all while expanding on the show’s themes of generational trauma, and the way that race complicates the ideas about power and vigilantism that Moore was exploring in the original Watchmen comic series.

It picks up with detective Angela Abar (Regina King) locked in a jail cell at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police department. The department’s interim chief, FBI special agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), has taken her into custody. But before anyone can subdue her, Angela swallows all of her grandfather’s Nostalgia pills. Nostalgia pills allow those who take them to revisit old memories that have been harvested. Once Angela takes them, she’s transported back to 1938 as her grandfather, Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), is being inducted into the New York Police Department. Could there be a more ironic name for a drug that lets black people relive the past?

Captain Metropolis (left) introduces Hooded Justice (right) as the newest member of the Minutemen, the vigilante crime-fighting unit that preceded the Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

Once it fully enters the realm of black and white, the episode becomes a gorgeously surreal exploration of the trauma we inherit without fully knowing it. Perhaps nothing, except reliving it, will get Angela to realize that her running from the past (“let Saigons be Saigons!”) is a retread of the instinct that once doomed her grandfather to a life filled with rage. As Angela settles into her temporary existence as Will, she sees what he sees and feels what he feels: his anger, his fear, his frustration with his fellow officers who are white, and then with the white Minutemen who refuse to fight for his cause the way he fights for theirs, even as they see themselves as heroes and protectors of the innocent.

Though Williams includes shots of Angela in Will’s NYPD uniform, the young officer is chiefly depicted by Jovan Adepo, who gives Will an uncanny sense of restraint interrupted by bouts of righteous violence. Will is a man who learns to grow accustomed to sublimating his emotions to save himself, but he still seethes with the resentment of its necessity.

Will quickly learns that “trust in the law” may be his hero, Bass Reeves’ favorite saying, but it doesn’t have much use coming from the mouth of a black man in real-world America. When he arrests a white man for throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window of a Jewish delicatessen, the man is freed within hours. The white officers gesture at one another with a mysterious sign. White supremacy has not just infiltrated the NYPD, Will discovers, it runs it.

A scene from American Hero Story, Watchmen’s show-within-a-show, which depicts Hooded Justice (center) as a white man.

Mark Hill/HBO

“This spook is accusing me of a horrendous crime,” Will’s collar tells the white precinct officers. “Who are you going to believe, me or him?”

As Angela walks the streets of 1938 New York, she’s haunted by the Tulsa of 1921. Everywhere she turns, she’s met by the ghost of her great-grandmother, Will’s mother, playing the piano in the movie theater the day of the attack. Williams renders these ghostly images in color to distinguish them from the history into which Angela has been dropped. A police car drives away, dragging two black corpses behind it by rope. It’s a stunningly original way of illustrating post-traumatic stress, but nothing quite tops Williams’ use of Matrix-like visual effects incorporated into a noir-style story when Hooded Justice jumps through a window after thwarting the Klan’s mesmerism plans.

Hooded Justice in a scene from Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

The story of how Will becomes Hooded Justice leaves no stone unturned. He gets his costume of black hood and noose from his white colleagues, who kidnap and lynch him to scare him out of arresting white supremacist criminals. When Hooded Justice makes the daily papers, Will meets Nelson Gardner, the blond leader of the Minutemen who fights crime as Captain Metropolis. And while Will is married to a back journalist who deifies Ida B. Wells, he’s helpless when it comes to resisting his attraction to Nelson.

“Why fight alone, when you can have true companionship?” Nelson asks Will, suggestively proffering a hand.

Will’s complicated relationship with Nelson helps us to imagine how Sul-Te-Wan could have been so devoted to a man as racist as Griffith, and how African Americans continually get drafted into projects that diminish their own humanity (see: America). Both Griffith and Nelson had power and access that their black friends did not, which, for Sul-Te-Wan and Will, led to relationships that were inherently fraught with compromise and compartmentalization.

Even as Nelson makes apologies for the racism of the rest of the Minutemen, he engages in it too, introducing Hooded Justice to the press while standing next to a poster of the group taking down a cartoonishly ghoulish black bank robber. When Will uncovers a racist conspiracy being enacted by his white fellow officers, Nelson dismisses it.

“So the Klan is using mind control? Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?” he scoffs, leaving Will to fight white racial terrorism by himself. Nelson, Good White Man that he is, has bought into a pathology that declares black people as uniquely violent and inherently destructive. “You’ll have to solve black unrest all on your own,” he tells his lover, invoking the specious red herring of “black-on-black crime” before it became labeled as such.

The Klan’s diabolical plan for getting black people to kill themselves and destroy their own communities by mesmerizing them with moving images may seem far-fetched, especially when Will refers to it as a “conspiracy.” But as metaphor, it is an apt illustration of the points James Baldwin makes in The Devil Finds Work, and which resurface in Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro. The result is the same, in either instance: the destruction of a people, of history, of legacy, of truth.

In both his book-length essay and in Peck’s documentary, Baldwin argues how film can work as a mechanism of white supremacist gaslighting, not just because of the way that black and indigenous people were depicted in it, but because of the lies white people told — and continue to tell — about themselves. (Baldwin called Doris Day and Gary Cooper “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen.”)

Baldwin’s assessment of the lies of The Defiant Ones (1958) could just as easily apply to Green Book (2018). The Defiant Ones starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as two escaped prisoners, shackled together, who must learn to cooperate if they are to survive on the lam. Wrote Baldwin:

Black men do not have the same reason to hate white men as white men have to hate blacks. The root of the white man’s hatred is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which only lives in his mind. But the root of the black man’s hatred is rage, and he does not so much hate white men as simply want them out of his way, and, more than that, out of his children’s way.

No black man, in such a situation, and especially knowing what Poitier conveys so vividly Noah Cullen knows, would rise to the bait proffered by this dimwitted poor white child, whose only real complaint is that he is a bona-fide mediocrity who failed to make it in the American rat-race. But many, no better than he, and many much worse, make it every day, all the way to Washington: sometimes, indeed, via Hollywood. It is a species of cowardice, grave indeed, to pretend that black men do not know this. And it is a matter of the most disastrous sentimentality to attempt to bring black men into the white American nightmare.

Liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy. The Harlem audience was outraged.

This Extraordinary Being is illustrative of how and why Lindelof’s approach to Watchmen works so well. He’s called it an “extrapolation” of Moore’s original comic rather than a traditional adaptation. That choice has allowed the series to embody the spirit of Moore’s work while exploring a theme that’s wholly absent from it: race. It’s not so different from what makes a great biopic performance, in which an actor chooses to focus on the key element of the person the actor is portraying and build from there instead of recreating a person with gimmick-laden imitations.

Episode six is brimming with Moore’s trademark skepticism about superheroes and his ideas about how media both reflects and perpetuates an American culture of white supremacy. Just as Bass Reeves was erased from popular culture with a white Lone Ranger played by Clayton Moore and later, Armie Hammer, so too was Hooded Justice. When the identity of Hooded Justice is finally revealed in American Hero StoryWatchmen’s show-within-a-show, which the officers of the Tulsa police department follow obsessively — he’s a white guy, not a black man who paints on a white mask.

Like the 1619 Project, Watchmen pushes its audience to question the passive acceptance of white objectivity, leaving it to wonder, in the words of one Wade Tillman: Is anything true?

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.