HBO's 'Watchmen' tackles criminal justice and race, but can't see past the hero black cop trope

For "Watchmen," the alternative to a racist white police force is not black activism or collective action. It's simply a better, blacker police officer.
Cheyenne Jackson in a scene from Season 1, Episode 6 of "Watchmen."
"Watchmen" still can't imagine justice, hooded or otherwise, separate from policing. Mark Hill / HBO
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By Noah Berlatsky

Hollywood has long been fascinated with the figure of the black police officer. On screen, black cops and federal agents show that the apparatus of the state can be diverse, funny, kind and even anti-racist. They suggest that the uniform, which has been worn to police and intimidate black people, can be repurposed to give black people authority and power to fight injustice. Agent J (Will Smith) in “Men in Black,” the unfortunately named Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) in “Into the Spiderverse,” Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) in “Brooklyn 99” — they're friendly crusaders for justice. They get you to root for the police.

The Black Lives Matter movement has focused antiracist activism and critique on the police. In response, Hollywood has doubled down on its portrayal of black police officers.

Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has focused anti-racist activism and critique on the police. In response, Hollywood has doubled down on its portrayal of black police officers — and nowhere more than in HBO’s new "Watchmen" television series. The star, Angela Abar (Regina King), is a police officer who is also a superhero; with her at the center of the show, the black cop becomes an almost mythological figure. Episode six of the series goes even further, turning the black cop into the single originary hero of the “Watchmen” universe.

(Spoilers below.)

"Watchmen" is set in an alternate, much more racially progressive 2019. But episode six is a flashback. Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), a black police officer in the 1940s, discovers a plot by the KKK to use mind control to force black people to kill each other. Reeves' fellow white officers are enthusiastic participants in the conspiracy and they hang Reeves by the neck from a tree, strangling him within within an inch of his life to prevent his interference. Reeves, though, takes the hood from his attempted lynching, and makes a mask of it to cover his face while he fights the Klan. He becomes Hooded Justice — this world's first superhero, who inspires all the others.

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"The black police officer emerged as this tortured figure with split alliances, who needed to still help maintain order," Steven Thrasher, a Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism professor whose scholarship focuses on social justice issues, told me. "I think emotionally what it's supposed to do is get audiences, particularly black audiences, to look at black police officers and to feel sympathetic for them, rather than to question the institution of policing, or to think about how it's structurally racist."

Thrasher points to the first episode of "Watchmen," in which a black cop has to convince his superior to let him unlock his gun to confront a violent white supremacist. The officer is killed because of the delay in weapon authorization. The world of "Watchmen" has more restraints on police; cops can't use firearms without getting specific clearance. But the show encourages you to see these restraints as dangerous bureaucratic interference.

The world of "Watchmen" has more restraints on police. But the show encourages you to see these restraints as dangerous bureaucratic interference.

In the real world, the speed with which police resort to lethal force regularly results in the murder of young black children and the shooting of black people peacefully sitting in their homes. But through the figure of the black cop, "Watchmen" presents an alternate reality in which black people are endangered when police are slower to fire guns. "I found myself cheering for the black cop in that scene, which I realized was a form of emotional manipulation," Thrasher said.

Episode six similarly encourages viewers to identify their own safety and fate with that of a black police officer. At the beginning of the episode, Angela Abar has taken drugs which make her remember Will Reeves' life. Throughout the show Angela, watching like the viewer, periodically replaces Will. She stands in his place when he's sworn in as a cop; she experiences his near-lynching with him. She models the reaction of the audience, and particularly of a black audience, which is supposed to empathize and identify with this particular police officer.

What this police officer does is telling. James Baldwin observed that black police officers in the 30s and 40s were often eager to prove themselves by arresting or harassing black people. This is why, he argues, "black cops were yet more terrifying than white ones."

But Will never accosts loitering black kids, or rounds up black sex workers, or exercises his authority against any black people at all. Instead, he spends his time arresting a white man who firebombed a Jewish deli, and patiently listening to a traumatized black female suspect. His wife dislikes his police work and his vigilante crusade — but only because it stains his soul with anger and violence. He never does anything shameful. He is never implicated in the day-by-day racist bullying and harassment which would have made up much of police work in the 1940s. A whole barrel of bad apples can't corrupt the pure black cop.

To its credit, "Watchmen" is unflinching in its depiction of the ugliness of the barrel. The episode is a bleak picture of how American institutions, and especially American law enforcement, is in league with white supremacy. The Klan and the police force are indistinguishable; their goals, and indeed their membership, are one and the same.

The episode is a bleak picture of how American institutions, and especially American law enforcement, is in league with white supremacy.

Nor are alternate institutions of justice any better. Reeves inspires other heroes, who eventually become the super team known as the Minutemen. But to work with them, Reeves has to wear white makeup around his eyes — under his mask — so his colleagues won't know he's black. When he tries to enlist the heroes in fighting the Klan, they're uninterested and hostile. The superheroes aren't part of the Klan themselves, as the cops are, but the are still white. They don't think black people can be helped and they resent being asked to try.

In the original "Watchmen" comic, Hooded Justice's identity was uncertain, but it was heavily suggested that he was a white man. By making him black, the television show deliberately restores black heroism to the center of American history. It insists that justice, in the United States, is justice for black people, or it is worthless. This is a powerful and noble interpretation.

But "Watchmen" still can't imagine justice, hooded or otherwise, separate from policing. The alternative to a racist white police force, for "Watchmen," is not black activism or collective action. It's simply a better, blacker police officer.

When Hooded Justice joins the Minutemen, one of Will's white comrades tells him he is especially welcome to the team because, "you legitimize the whole enterprise." We're supposed to understand that the Minutemen are using Will to shore up their own racist and blinkered vision of justice. We're not necessarily supposed to recognize that by using the image of the black cop, "Watchmen" may be doing the same thing.