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Watchmen screenwriter Cord Jefferson on Hooded Justice and the privilege of nostalgia

<i>Watchmen </i>screenwriter<i> </i>Cord Jefferson<i> </i>on Hooded Justice and the privilege of nostalgia
Graphic: The A.V. Club, Photo: Courtesy of Rogers & Cowan PMK, Mark Hill/HBO
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Of the many ways in which HBO’s Watchmen remixed the comic book source material by Alan Moore, perhaps no divergence was more powerful than the reveal that Hooded Justice, the first masked hero, was a Black man. That man, Will Reeves, had already been through hell before he joined the New York City police force—he was one of the few survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which saw the destruction of what was known as Black Wall Street at the hands of the town’s bigoted white neighbors. Will adopted the last name of Reeves in honor of Bass Reeves, the real-life U.S. marshal who has served as the inspiration for countless onscreen heroes, many of them white.

This momentous twist is partially the work of showrunner Damon Lindelof, who asked his Watchmen writers to pitch ideas to flesh out the backstory. But it was writer Cord Jefferson, who’d previously worked on The Nightly Show and The Good Place, who envisioned Will as a young NYPD officer who must reckon with the unmitigated racism of his past and the modified version that permeates his workplace. Watchmen’s themes of reclamation and multigenerational trauma are never more resonant and cohesive than in “This Extraordinary Being,” which places Angela Abar, a.k.a. Sister Night (Regina King), in her grandfather’s shoes on a harrowing night.

Jefferson knows the episode is a high-wire act, one that taps into Black people’s fears and the role that filmmaking has played in dehumanizing them—he also knows that he and even Lindelof didn’t pull off this exceptional episode alone. When The A.V. Club recently spoke with Jefferson over the phone about his Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing For A Limited Series, Movie Or Dramatic Special, he was candid about the difficulty of threading this particular needle, the importance of having multiple Black voices in the room, and how to avoid exploitation while crafting a story about violence.

The A.V. Club: The episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” is built on the origin story you envisioned for Hooded Justice. What did that pitch look like? And what was your conversation like with Damon [Lindelof] about it?

Cord Jefferson: Damon came to the room with the idea that he wanted Hooded Justice to be Black. He didn’t know who that was going to be, or how that story was going to take shape. He just knew that he wanted Hooded Justice to be a Black man. That was his pitch. So we started with that premise and then worked backwards from there. He’s a fan of homework for writers, and one day he said, “Okay, pitch out how Hooded Justice might come to have a noose around his neck as part of his costume.”

And so everybody went home and thought about that. The next day I came in with a pitch. It’s interesting in how you look at symbols and signs and stuff based on your context. I think that when a lot of people read the original Watchmen, they see Hooded Justice with the hood and the noose around his neck, and they probably assumed that it was an executioner or something. But in my mind, when we’re looking at Hooded Justice and we’re starting with the premise that he’s a Black man, I think that there’s no way to look at this character as a Black man with a noose around his neck and not think that that screams racial violence. And so I came in the next day and pitched that he would be a police officer who was lynched as retribution for trying to arrest a prominent white person in the community. Everybody liked that, and we went forward from there.

AVC: I spoke with Stephen Williams a little earlier today about the ways that, visually, the episode reflects how layered the story is. The nostalgia, or the flashbacks, are in black-and-white. And then you add a different dimension with the flashbacks to Will’s time in Tulsa. What did that conversation look like from your end? What was your input?

CJ: We were tossing and turning in our minds how we were going to make the ghost of Will’s past look. This was before we had decided that the episode would be in black-and-white—there was a lot of discussion as to what things would look like visually in order to make them stand out, particularly in the ghost of his past, the Klan members, and [Will’s] mother and things like that. Initially there was talk that they might be a little bit blurry compared to the rest of everything, which would be in sharp focus. We decided against that. We thought that maybe they might be in sepia tone, but then we thought that that would be kind of corny. And so eventually we decided that the episode should primarily be in black-and-white, except for these flashes of Will’s past, which would be in color, and these gruesome, sickening streets of red when the car drives away with the bodies, when the police car drives away with the bodies dragging behind it. That was actually not in the original script; that was the result of a long conversation we had with Stephen about what we all thought would be the best visually.

Cheyenne Jackson in Watchmen
Cheyenne Jackson in Watchmen
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO

AVC: When Will is on that walk on that night and his fellow police officers grab him, there’s a kind of Casablanca feel to it—he’s walking down the street with his mother playing the piano in the background, in one of those flashbacks within the flashback. It’s kind of lovely, but even before they get out of the car, something about it feels out of place.

CJ: Yeah, the episode is a juxtaposition, especially in that scene that you’re talking about—the music feels very discordant with what’s going on in the scene. That sort of gentle, soft, beautiful song that Atticus [Ross] and Trent [Reznor] came up with. So I think that something that we wanted to get across in this episode, even calling the drug Nostalgia, is just how nostalgia feels different for people of color and for women and queer people in this country. That the idea that a lot of people have of Casablanca, of going back and that being a great time in history and people wanting to revisit that and feeling nostalgic for those time periods... that actually, if you are anybody but a straight white man, then you aren’t nostalgic for those times because those times were miserable for you in many ways. And so it’s the idea of nostalgia being a privileged thing—that for the vast majority of people who aren’t straight white men, it’s not something that you’re longing for necessarily.

AVC: I think your script speaks to that as well—as Laurie says to Angela at the beginning of the episode, “Who wants to be in the present when you can live in the past?” The truth is, not everybody has the luxury of feeling that way.

CJ: Yeah, exactly.

AVC: Another subtle reference that stood out for me is how you nod to comic book stories, and how we can interpret the heroes as being marginalized people. There’s even a little reference to Superman, who’s basically a refugee.

CJ: Yeah, exactly. That first Action Comics issue. That came about because Damon and I talked about Will’s origin story and the Tulsa massacre, and his parents putting him in that trunk of the car and pushing him away with the friends. Damon’s a huge comic book nerd, he immediately picked up on that, “Oh, this is like Superman’s origin story.” And then we thought about that as we built the season. And then when it came time for episode six, Damon, also because he’s a huge comic book nerd, knew that the time period that we were setting that episode in would have been aligned perfectly with when the first Superman comic came out. And I love that addition. That’s something that I wouldn’t have caught on my own.

AVC: You mentioned how, when you look at 1930s America, if you’re not a straight white man, they weren’t necessarily great times for you. But one of the themes of the show is reclamation, and there’s something very powerful about the story centering on Angela. But you also have her ancestor June. In your story, she is part of the creation of Hooded Justice. She’s not Lois Lane, where she can’t tell the difference between a guy in and out of glasses. Can you speak to that idea, of creating an active role for her in his origin story?

CJ: June is the first one to tell Will that he’s angry. She’s the first one to tell him directly, “You have a rage inside of you, and it’s okay to have a rage inside of you because you saw something horrible happen. But you need to acknowledge you have a rage inside of you, because if you do not, that can be a dangerous thing, if it’s just unfocused anger.” And so, he refuses to admit it at first. Of course, the night that he comes to her house, after almost being lynched, he tells her, “I guess I am angry.” She sees him partaking in vigilantism as Hooded Justice as being a way to sort of get out that anger. In her mind, therapy wasn’t really a thing back then, particularly for Black people. And so there’s this idea that “I need to give you an outlet for this rage, this sort of pressure release valve. It seems like you can do good while also getting out some of these emotions.”

But one of the themes of the episode and the season is that wearing multiple masks in attempt to hide yourself from who you actually are is not any way to get out this rage. I think that, in fact, probably one of the worst things that she can invite him to do is put on the makeup. It’s June’s idea initially to put on the white makeup and to convince everybody that he’s white, because you can’t be Black and be a vigilante. The white makeup probably does save him a lot of grief in the long run because people aren’t going to tolerate a Black man out there being a vigilante. But all it did was add to the masks, figurative and literal, that he’s wearing in his life, adding to the shame and the guilt and all the other things that are traumatizing him along the way.

AVC: The Cyclops storyline with the hypnosis and the projectors, that’s something that very much fits into a TV show and into the idea of comics, but it also taps into the mistrust that marginalized people can feel toward the government. It’s treated as a conspiracy theory by Captain Metropolis, the kind of thing that gets dismissed in real life, even though some theories have born out. It’s a fine line to walk, so did you set any kind of rule for yourself? How did you and Damon hash it out?

CJ: The thing that drew me to Watchmen at the outset, even when Damon was first describing the show to me and asking me if I would be interested in working on it, is the marriage of sci-fi and the genre superhero elements with grounded American history. I think that when I’m drawn to genre stuff, it tends to be grounded genre stuff. So I’m much more interested in a movie like Get Out, for instance, as a horror movie, because it feels grounded in reality in a certain way, as opposed to just some other fantastical horror movie that... I’m trying to think of something with ghosts and spirits and stuff like that, that don’t feel actually grounded. Like Paranormal Activity, I guess I’ll say. The marriage of those two things is what drew me to the project in the first place. I came to expect some of that as we went in.

And what I think that the Cyclops storyline does is actually inverts what we’ve come to expect. I think everybody will acknowledge that film and television throughout American history have been used to denigrate Black Americans and oftentimes stir up aggression and fear in white America against Black Americans. I mean, starting from literally the first feature films ever, right? Like Birth Of A Nation. I think that is a perfect example of what, from Birth Of A Nation to Cops, to any number of other pieces of film and TV that have stoked the ire of racism. I think that what Cyclops did was inverted that a little bit and made it a thing that was convincing Black Americans to attack each other. But I think that the reality isn’t too far off from what we put in the show. I mean, it is a conspiracy theory, and it is one that, I don’t think one that exists to my knowledge, but what we portrayed isn’t too far from the reality of something like Birth Of A Nation in my mind.

AVC: In speaking with Stephen about the episode, we did discuss the lynching scene with Will. Something that he said that really stood out to me is that part of what makes it work, for lack of a better term, is that the experience is very much subjective. That was his word. He said that it was important that it not be about people just perpetrating violence and us seeing that, but about sitting with Angela as she experiences that. And I wonder if that began with the script, or if that’s something you guys all worked out together?

CJ: In the script, we had the stage direction that the camera would lift with the character of Angela and Will as they were being lifted into the sky via the noose. So that stage direction was in there. Damon and I discussed it, and we wanted it to feel... for me, that’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever watched, and certainly one of the most difficult things I think I’ve watched in the season. But I think that we wanted it to feel visceral. For most of the episode, you are sort of like an outsider to Angela living in her grandfather’s shoes. And for that moment, we actually put you in Angela’s POV, so you can really experience it for yourself, and, I think, the terror and the tragedy of the whole thing. We understand that that seems hard and difficult to watch. We never wanted to be glib with the violence in this series, particularly in that episode, and hopefully people don’t think it was glib. Hopefully, people understand that we were just out to portray the gravity and the real terror and tragedy that’s associated with those lynchings.

AVC: Part of what keeps it from being glib or exploitative is the fact that you’re not... this isn’t Game Of Thrones where you’re watching Theon react to Sansa’s rape, you know?

CJ: Yeah.

AVC: The story isn’t about the officers, it’s about Angela learning more about her grandfather. There is another scene that’s very much about Angela really living in Will’s memories. It’s the scene where Hooded Justice has first encountered Cyclops, and he’s beat a bunch of them up in a storeroom. He confronts Fred, the guy who had set the deli on fire, and then he dives out that glass storefront window, and then it freezes and it looks like a comic panel. How did that come about?

CJ: I believe Damon pitched that scene. And I think that it’s just—we never wanted to ignore the fact that you’re basically experiencing a drug trip. The episode is a drug hallucination, so we knew that we wanted at some point to sort of snap out of it very briefly so that you could sort of get a perspective of Angela seeing Cal next to her bedside, and trying to get her to come out of it and acknowledging the danger that she was facing. We never wanted the show to feel like a panel-for-panel remake of the comic, but we certainly didn’t want to go the whole season without acknowledging that this is an adaptation, in a certain way, or a remix of a comic book. And so, I think that looks like a comic panel for a reason.

AVC: The show as a whole feels like it has really moved the needle in terms of the way that we can approach storylines that are this fraught, like there’s a way to be very direct about what you’re addressing without exploiting anyone. But it all starts with making sure that the right people are working on the story. When I first started watching the show, I was like, “Who is writing all of this?” Because like you said earlier, Damon introduced the idea of Hooded Justice being Black, and how that ties into the idea of Bass Reeves being the inspiration for so many heroes and being whitewashed subsequently. It’s thorny territory, when you start to reclaim things, because some people might say you can’t reclaim things, you can’t subvert a symbol like a noose.

CJ: I think that you’re absolutely right. I think that it starts with the people that you bring aboard to help you execute your vision. Damon has said that this is the most diverse writers room he’s put together and that in some ways, he said, that he believed the show started to open up to him when he stepped to the side and allowed a lot of the people of color in that room to tell their own stories and sort of to help guide where the show should go. He said that in some ways, he wanted to start facilitating us telling our own stories, as opposed to him being the one telling his story. And I think that that should serve as a model for a lot of people.

I don’t think it diminishes his role as a showrunner by any means. The show is still very much a Damon Lindelof show, but I think that Damon wisely thought that “I want to make a show largely about Black people and racism. And so if I’m going to do that, I need to understand that I should probably collect a lot of Black people who have experienced racism differently than I have, in America, and allow them to have a huge hand in what we do and what we say.” So I think that if only there were more showrunners like that, who would be open to those kinds of things, I think that the quality of film and TV would get a lot better.

AVC: Watchmen is a shining example for that. I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to refute what you accomplish when you include those perspectives.

CJ: I’ve said this before, but I think a lot of it is that Damon didn’t just hire one Black person and assume that the Black experience, that Blacks are a monolith and that one Black person serves to give you the entire Black experience, because that’s absolutely not the case. And so he made sure there was a lot of Black people in that room, because we all have different ideas and different experiences and different thoughts about the things that we were discussing. Beyond that, beyond just getting a lot of people in the room, he then was able to not have an ego about it and understand that he didn’t know everything and understand that, in fact, the people of color in that room probably knew a lot more than he did about certain things. So, dropping an ego and just acknowledging that he was not the end all, be all for this show and that there were other people who could help him create what he actually wanted to create was another huge part of it.