Over*Flow: Watchmen Walked So That Lovecraft Country Could Run: The Jordan Peele Effect on TV’s New Black Sci-fi
Tia Alphonse / University of Missouri


Promotional Image for HBO's Lovecraft County and HBO's Watchmen
Promotional image for HBO’s Lovecraft Country (left), Promotional image for HBO’s Watchmen (right)

For most African Americans, there are few moments in American history to which they would willingly return. Recent television series are trying to create spaces where Black people are able to confront historical legacies on their own terms. The worlds of Watchmen (2019) and Lovecraft Country (2020) are genre-bending narratives that subvert the go-to Hollywood choices of using historical or epic dramas to deal with the issue of race. Instead, these new series are using more unorthodox genres like sci-fi to assist Black people as they enter and exit their own racial traumas.

HBO’s comic-adapted series Watchmen swept the 2020 Emmys on September 20, amassing 11 awards in the limited-series categories. Although critics love the show, Watchmen’s reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are polarizing with a 96-percent rating from critics and a 55-percent audience rating. [ (( Watchmen (2019). (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.metacritic.com/tv/watchmen-2019/season-1/user-reviews ))] In Metacritic’s user reviews, fans of Alan Moore’s original “Watchmen” comic said the television series veers too far from the source material by focusing on political issues. [ ((  Watchmen: Season 1. (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/watchmen/s01))] The “Watchmen” comics explored an America where the United States wins the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal is never exposed. In Moore’s comics, the presence of superheroes and vigilantes changes the course of history in the 1940s and 1960s. [ ((Jensen, J. (2005, October 21). ‘Watchmen’: An Oral History. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://ew.com/books/2005/10/21/watchmen-oral-history/ ))] Series creator Damon Lindelof felt he could use the original source material as canon to build a storyline more relatable than retelling a Cold War-centered story about American nationalism. Lindelof asked himself: “What, in 2019, is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States?” He said, “It just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America.” [ ((VanDerWerff, E. (2019, October 20). HBO’s Watchmen tells stories about America’s racist past in America’s racist present. Vox. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/10/20/20919750/watchmen-hbo-regina-king-review-damon-lindelof-race-policing))]

Watchmen’s pilot episode opens with a reimagined scene from the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. The events unfold primarily through the eyes of a young boy as planes rain down bullets and bombs. White men are executing Black men and women on the streets. Coaxed into a wooden crate by his parents, the boy is rushed out of town as bullet holes pierce his box. He peeks through an opening and sees horses dragging lassoed bodies down the street. [ ((Lindelof, D. (Writer), & Kassell, N. (Director). (2019, October 20). It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice (Season 1, Episode 1). [TV series episode]. Watchmen. Home Box Office; DC Comics; Warner Bros Television; White Rabbit. ))] With this opening scene, director Nicole Kassell permanently imprints the episode’s images into viewers’ minds and sparks a conversation about Tulsa’s Black Wall Street that had all but been forgotten by white Americans and never taught to others.


“It just reminds you how much pain our country was built on that we haven’t talked about.” – @ReginaKing from @watchmen tweet on June 20, 2020.

For both Black and white audiences, this series speaks to each group in distinct ways. Watchmen allows audiences to enter fictional worlds, although based on real historical events, and explore racial trauma outside its traditional depictions in slavery-centered storylines. By using unconventional genre storytelling, writers and directors allow audiences to return to these spaces to find restoration and redemption. The science fiction/fantasy and horror genres create spaces for characters to have more agency and offers Black protagonists the tools to fight white oppression. For so long, the only portrayals taken seriously by critics were rigid stories about the Black experience rooted in racial oppression. Whether it be historical portrayals of Black icons like Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma (Ava Duvernay, 2014) or historical dramas about slavery in 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013), audiences often trust these stories to retell events as they happened. In their familiarity and repetition, these drama films no longer challenge audiences to look introspectively at the way racism is perpetuated in the present. [ (( Boger, J. (2018). Manipulations of Stereotypes and Horror Clichés to Criticize Post-Racial White Liberalism in Jordan Peele’s Get Out . The Graduate Review(3), 149-158. https://vc.bridgew.edu/grad_rev/vol3/iss1/22))] Watchmen so poignantly balances acknowledgement of the real-lived experiences and trauma of historical racism, yet in fantasy, it also creates new characters undefined by the timeline and constraints of the past. This conscious decision allows creatives to produce Black protagonists that can fight back in unconventional ways.

Watchmen and Lovecraft Country: Easter eggs for Black fans


“1 of my fave parts of tonight’s watchmen episode were the 2 newspaper clippings about the SOLD OUT nazi rally…” – @radseed from November 25, 2019 tweet.

In the sixth episode of Watchmen titled “This Extraordinary Being,” audiences are taken along Will Reeves’ journey to becoming a vigilante. Will is the older version of the boy we meet in the first episode. He grows up to become a police officer in New York City before realizing the problems he escaped in Tulsa still exist and have infested his police unit. Audiences watch as Will finds ways to fight a white supremacist organization. [ ((Lindelof, D. (Writer), & Williams, S. (Director). (2019, November 24). This Extraordinary Being. (Season 1, Episode 6). [TV series episode]. Watchmen. Home Box Office; DC Comics; Warner Bros Television Studios; White Rabbit.))] In a reality where vigilantes and superheroes save the day, the idea of one or two individuals taking on white supremacy seems less insurmountable. By meshing the fantasy genre with historical facts such as 22,000 people marching in a Madison Square Garden Nazi Rally in 1939, Lindelof establishes a world where Black people take on racial injustice in a way that feels authentic. Characters don’t simply defeat the big “bad guy” and move on to another with different motives. The true villains are racism, bigotry, and white supremacy personified – concepts so ingrained into the world of Watchmen and modern America that the battles are never the end of the war. Nevertheless, the fantasy gives audiences the occasional win to hold on to as they continue the fight for equality.


“I neglected to put this in my review, but #LovecraftCountry does more to highlight the necessity of the Green Book…” – @ReelTalker from August 16, 2020 tweet.

In the first episode of Lovecraft Country titled “Sundown,” audiences are introduced to Uncle George’s Safe Negro Travel Guide. This book is a direct reference to the Negro Motorist Green Book created by Victor Hugo Green. [ (( Gooden, T. (2020, August 17). The Real History of LOVECRAFT COUNTRY’s Safe Negro Travel Guide. Nerdist. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://nerdist.com/article/lovecraft-country-safe-negro-travel-guide-history/))] George’s guidebook is a tool to help Black families navigate different parts of the country during Jim Crow. He advises safe locations for dinner and good places to stop at night. He also gives readers information about the places to which they need to be weary, particularly sundown towns and counties. This episode emphasizes the importance of the guide when George, Leti, and Tic are chased out of town by a racist sheriff. He tells them that they are in a sundown county with only minutes to spare before sunset. [ (( Green, M. (Writer), & Demange, Y. (Director). (2020, August 16). Sundown [Television series episode]. Lovecraft County. Home Box Office; Monkeypaw Productions; Bad Robot Productions; Warner Bros Television Studios.))] For many audiences, this examination into the Black travel guides corrects problems unaddressed by the Oscar-winning movie Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018).

Watchmen and Lovecraft Country: Re-educating White audiences


“Me. I did NOT know about the Tulsa Massacre 1921 until I watched @Watchmen on HBO last night” – @RCMhere from October 22, 2019 tweet.

After viewing the opening scene of Watchmen, viewers flooded social media with comments about the Tulsa Massacre. Many white viewers had no idea about the real atrocities experienced on Black Wall Street that day in Tulsa. The show gave its first of many history lessons. It showed the airplanes bombing the area as white men shot people on the street. This massacre, not Pearl Harbor, was the first time that Americans were terrorized with an aerial assault. [ (( Pelley, S. (2020, June 14). Greenwood, 1921: One of the worst race massacres in American history. CBS News. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/greenwood-massacre-tulsa-oklahoma-1921-race-riot-60-minutes-2020-06-14/))] As many fans of the show pointed out on Twitter, this episode delivered a teachable moment in exploring a historical event often not explained or taught in history classes to white audiences.


“One cool thing about the US education system is that I am consistently learning more about racist policies/events from TV…” – @ParkerPSM from August 16, 2020 tweet.

Lovecraft Country’s
“Sundown” prompted some white viewers to look into the history of their towns
and places that they previously traveled. It is easier to dismiss racial
histories when they seem like they are far in the past. Lovecraft Country
mostly takes place in the Chicago summer of 1955. As viewers looked online for
information about past sundown towns, they realized that sundown towns still
exist all over the country. Episodes like these now create spaces for white
audiences to explore more contemporary ramifications to centuries of racial
trauma inflicted on the Black community.

Expanding Jordan
Peele’s canon on the small screen

Watchman is the first in a line of television series that models Jordan Peele’s canon of work in the horror/sci-fi genre for films. Get Out (2017) is his first critically acclaimed movie to genre bend in this way. Peele uses horror to illuminate the problems with neoliberal ideology that claims America is a post-racial society. With Get Out, Peele argues that this mindset is often a cover for racial and bigoted beliefs. [ (( Landsberg, A. (2018). Horror vérité: politics and history in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 32(5), 629–642. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2018.1500522 ))] Peele then follows this up with Us (2019), using horror to explore how race and class are used to divide society. The tethered beings in the underground tunnels represent America’s attempt to hide the racial and economic foundations of this country. The longer it has to fester, the more likely it is to bubble up to the surface. [ (( Wall, D. (2019). Film Review: Us. Black Camera, 11(1), 457-461. doi:10.2979/blackcamera.11.1.25 ))] With his executive produced Candyman (2021), directed by African American director Nia DaCosta, Peele has expanded his canon to a trilogy that explores how communities, over time, develop urban legends to explain violence. With this forthcoming project, Peele and DaCosta wanted to examine the stories that communities tell themselves. [ ((Reed, A. (2020, August 28). New scenes from ‘Candyman’ reveal hook-wielding horror at American Black Film Festival. USA Today. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2020/08/25/candyman-new-scenes-revealed-nia-dacosta-jordan-peele-horror-film/3433205001/))]

Given the success of Peele’s films on the big screen and their appeal to both Black and white audiences in distinct ways, it is not surprising that Peele is spearheading and expanding this genre-bending approach within the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genres to the small screen. He serves as the co-executive producer of Lovecraft Country. HBO’s Watchmen – and now Lovecraft Country – expands Peele’s methodology into a serial televised medium by which audiences can slowly and more thoroughly confront past and present racial trauma, beyond a single film.

Black fans and
sci-fi/horror/fantasy

Traditionally, the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres were not categories where Black fans could see themselves – whether in film or television. In science fiction, Black characters just weren’t there. The science fiction genre, at its core, delves into the infinite possibilities in the universe, yet rarely do any of those realities have Black characters. In the fantasy genre, Black characters are rarely given lead roles in productions of the same caliber as their white co-stars. Horror isn’t much better. Black characters are often killed off early in movies and given little to no character development before their untimely demise. With this in mind, people often view these genres as ones that do not attract Black fandom. However, this is simply not the case. Black fans have supported television shows and movies like Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone, and It long before they had quality representations of Black characters.

Watchmen and Lovecraft Country carved out areas in these genres for Black fandom to rally around characters made specifically with them in mind. These Black characters have depth and agency in a way that has been ignored on screen for decades. When done correctly, shows like these two prove that Black content is not only profitable to Black producers and actors, but they are culturally transforming for a generation starved of authentic Black portrayals.



Image Credits:

  1. Promotional image for HBO’s Lovecraft Country (left), Promotional image for HBO’s Watchmen (right)
  2. “It just reminds you how much pain our country was built on that we haven’t talked about.” – @ReginaKing from @watchmen tweet on June 20, 2020.
  3. “1 of my fave parts of tonight’s watchmen episode were the 2 newspaper clippings about the SOLD OUT nazi rally…” – @radseed from November 25, 2019 tweet.
  4. “I neglected to put this in my review, but #LovecraftCountry does more to highlight the necessity of the Green Book…” – @ReelTalker from August 16, 2020 tweet.
  5. “Me. I did NOT know about the Tulsa Massacre 1921 until I watched @Watchmen on HBO last night” – @RCMhere from October 22, 2019 tweet.
  6. “One cool thing about the US education system is that I am consistently learning more about racist policies/events from TV…” – @ParkerPSM from August 16, 2020 tweet.


References:




Getting Misty-Eyed: Misty Copeland And The Representational Politics Of Black Fandoms
Alfred L. Martin, Jr. / University Of Iowa


Misty Copeland on Cover of Time Magazine
Copeland on cover of Time magazine as one of “The 100 Most Influential People.”

Without question, Black ballet dancers infrequently occupy the upper echelons of American ballet companies. My own experience as a ballet dancer often found me as the only Black person (and frequently the only person of color) in a room filled with white swans and their equally white cavaliers. As such, when Copeland was promoted at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) becoming the 75-year-old company’s first Black female principal dancer on June 30, 2015, it was undoubtedly a big deal within the politics of representation—and something I felt compelled to research. Using three interviews with Black female Misty Copeland fans, my aim here is to illuminate the ways Copeland’s Blackness (and rank within the company) has worked to bring African American non-ballet fans into the white world of ballet. In particular, I briefly highlight the ways these Black fandoms rely on a politics of visibility driven by an engagement with paratexts and affect.


Me in ballet class at the Joffrey Ballet circa Summer 1994.

For the Black women I interviewed, the entry point for Copeland is her paratexts. As Jonathan Gray suggests “rather than simply serv[ing] as extensions of a text” paratexts help to shape “our first and formative encounters with the text” (3). Some Black fans, like Courtenay, first saw Copeland on a magazine cover. She says, “It wasn’t even that I read the article, but I saw her pose in the magazine and it drew my attention.” Courtenay illuminates the ways Misty Copeland’s celebrity has extended beyond the relatively elitist walls of the ballet world. Capturing the attention of some Black fans as a dancer for Prince while “moonlighting” from ABT, these fans used their affective response to her to begin driving popular discourse about her “only” being a soloist at ABT. Those who saw Copeland dance for Prince and in any other number of venues including The Arsenio Hall Show(Syndication, 2013-2014) wondered why Copeland was “only” a soloist based upon their affect that what they were seeing was good, rather than their understanding of classical ballet.

Copeland’s
position within ABT was inextricably linked to the possibilities of Blackness
within the typically lily-white world of ballet. As Keisha illuminates, she,
like Courtenay, found Copeland through news stories, only having had a previous
dance familiarity with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Keisha told me:

I heard about Misty and how magnificent she was as a ballerina and she was a woman of color and that’s something you don’t hear about every day. And any time that you hear about anyone of color rising to the pinnacle of their craft, a lot of people put their eye on it. And I was one of those people… She was absolutely phenomenal. And… just to see the amount of Black people that were there, because when I’ve been to other ballets, really, you never really saw a lot of Black people.

For Keisha, the politics of Copeland’s brown body is important, as it was seemingly for the number of Black people within the audience at the Washington, D.C. performance of “Whipped Cream” at which I met Keisha. In other words, it is the very presence of Copeland in a white ballet world that, regardless of her talent, instills a sense of pride among the Black people I interviewed.

Jordan, although she is a dancer herself, discovered Copeland not through ballet but via the Today show. Jordan says, “On Today they were discussing [Copeland] as a ballerina who was breaking barriers and that was important to me.” The notion of “breaking barriers” is a chief part of Copeland’s star text because it gestures toward the centrality of Copeland’s position within ABT. As Stephanie argues, “I think you’re talking about her basically pushing her way into a white space.” Keisha adds that “I think [Copeland] sets herself apart from the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey dancers because of the fact that… if she were to be in the Dance Theater of Harlem, she would be just another number… but she would definitely stand out among the rest. But the level of talent that she has… That’s why she’s in American Ballet Theatre. I’m thinking that she just would be another number if she was in another predominantly Black dance company.” In other words, Copeland would still be undoubtedly talented, but her Blackness within a white ballet company carries a greater sense of pride for the Black women I interviewed. At the same time, the discourse of “breaking barriers” discursively untethers Copeland from a history of Black women in ballet, including, but certainly not limited to Lauren Anderson, Debra Austin, Virginia Johnson and Raven Wilkinson.


Collage of Black Ballerinas
Collage of Black ballerinas (from top left, clockwise): Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Virginia Johnson (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Lauren Young (Houston Ballet), and Debra Austin (Pennsylvania Ballet).

Much like the discourse about Obama’s election as the first African American president of the United States, Copeland’s brown body within ABT is understood as being aspirational for children, whether they want to be ballet dancers or not. Stephanie says, “I like her because I have two little girls… I’m always happy to see Black representation in fields that we have not historically been in, because I think it’s important for little Black girls to not feel like there are things that they can’t do.” Courtenay adds, “The fact that she is in a genre of dance that has typically been considered only for a certain type of person. A certain type of body structure, a certain type of look. So that has gained my respect because you’re representing young girls who have a dream and they may not look like that but they’re trying to do it anyway. And so that makes me just like aww, come on girl, open the door for people.” In this way, Courtenay demonstrates the ways that Black fans’ investment in Copeland is not just about Copeland, but is also about encouraging the future generations of Black children to reach for seemingly unattainable goals.

In the same vein, Jordan extends Copeland’s import to Black women as well. She forwards, “Misty Copeland is a young woman who basically defied the odds and is a really good example for a young Black woman, like myself, who are pursuing dance… when I was growing up, I didn’t really see a lot of Black dancers in my dance classes. Maybe two dancers… So, seeing that story about her and how she basically kind of went through the same thing I did… And her getting a chance to become a principal ballerina… it inspired me to continue to press through and take dance classes even though I might not be represented in those types of styles of dancing, but to really go for it.” Copeland is not an empty signifier who allows others to map their desires onto her. Rather, through a series of inspirational soundbites, Copeland encourages such a mapping. But in such inspirational messaging, Copeland veers dangerously toward bootstrapping ideologies given that her success is not just about her hard work, but about her luck. In the act of “inspiring” others, she concomitantly forwards the dangerous discourse that “teaches” that if one does not succeed, one simply did not try hard enough. In short, Copeland becomes, whether by accident or by design, the perfect “test case” for an allegedly post-racial era. The failure of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Black ballet dancers who did not “make it” (and certainly not within major international ballet companies) failed because they did not try hard enough, not because there are, and have been, systemic barriers to their entry into such companies.


Closeup of Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland circa 2014.

Copeland’s celebrity is also pedagogical. Even as the documentary A Ballerina’s Tale (Nelson George, 2015) served as a paratext to Copeland, for Keisha, it also served as a “trailer” that made her want to see Copeland perform. She says, “I saw the documentary on Netflix and that was definitely great, and that allowed me to learn more about Misty and appreciate her craft–appreciate her work and the amount of dedication that she put into her career. I just had to see it for myself. I was there, and it was definitely a way of seeing it for myself, but also as to support her.” Similarly, Jordan saw A Ballerina’s Tale which she “came across that by accident. I wasn’t watching it because it was hers. That was probably when I first kind of became familiar with her. I was like, oh yeah, this is the girl I saw on that news story, so I went ahead and watched it.” Shortly after that, Jordan had the opportunity to perform as an extra in ABT’s Detroit engagement of Sleeping Beauty, in which Copeland performed Aurora, the lead role. Jordan recalls that during that time, she has an opportunity to meet Copeland. In that meeting Jordan says she “wanted her to know how important it was for me to just meet her” and that Copeland inspired Jordan to keep dancing.

The confluence of Copeland being in a space that has not historically welcomed Black dancers (although Latinx and Asian-descended dancers have frequently been within ABT’s ranks) and Black fans’ general lack of knowledge around ballet technique shapes Copeland’s Black fandom. Thus, like many fandoms, Copeland’s Black fandom is largely affective. Her Black fans are left Misty-eyed when discussing Copeland because of what she means within the politics of Black representation.

Works Cited:

Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: NYU Press, 2010.



Image Credits:

  1. Copeland on Cover of Time magazine as one of “The 100 Most Influential People.”
  2. Me in ballet class at the Joffrey Ballet circa Summer 1994. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Collage of Black ballerinas (from top left, clockwise): Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Virginia Johnson (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Lauren Young (Houston Ballet), and Debra Austin (Pennsylvania Ballet). (author’s screen grab)
  4. Misty Copeland circa 2014.