Hollywood Is Finally Shining a Light on the Tulsa Race Massacre -- Right When We Need It Most
By Stacy Lambe
HBO; Getty Images
From May 31 to June 1, 1921, one of the single worst acts of racial violence in American history took place as mobs of white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, attacked the black people and black-owned businesses of the city’s Greenwood District. According to The New York Times, it “was one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in American history: a horrific spree of murder, arson and looting inflicted by white residents upon the prosperous African American community of Greenwood, followed by a shameless cover-up.”
The attacks have since become known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. And in the 99 years since, the story has remained buried -- largely ignored in American history classes -- only to become a forgotten crucial part of history that’s only being recently rediscovered onscreen today.
On the final day of the massacre’s 99th anniversary and days into protests around the country over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and systemic racism against black lives in America, it was announced that director Salima Koroma (Bad Rap) was partnering with LeBron James’ production company, Spring Hill Entertainment, to tell the story about the brutal attacks on Black Wall Street for an all-new documentary.
“In April, [Koroma] pitched us her vision to direct a documentary about Black Wall Street and The Tulsa Riot of 1921 -- one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. We knew we had to empower her to tell that story,” the company wrote on Twitter. In a separate tweet, Koroma wrote that “the Tulsa Race Massacre is not just a black story but American history. The fabric of this country is soaked in racism and today 99 years later, we’re still fighting for change.”
The Tulsa Race Massacre is not just a black story but American history. The fabric of this country is soaked in racism and today 99 years later, we’re still fighting for change. That’s why I’m partnering with @SpringHillEnt to tell the story of Black Wall Street ✊🏿
While this is not the first to attempt to chronicle the events surrounding Black Wall Street, it is among two recently announced projects. The other being the docuseries, Terror in Tulsa: The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street, produced by Russell Westbrook and directed by filmmaker Stanley Nelson. “Spending 11 years in Oklahoma opened my eyes to the rich and sordid history of the state,” the NBA star said in a statement. “When I learned about the heartbreaking events that happened in Tulsa nearly 100 years ago, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell. It’s upsetting that the atrocities that transpired then, are still so relevant today. It’s important we uncover the buried stories of African Americans in this country. We must amplify them now more than ever if we want to create change moving forward.”
Additionally, the historic tragedy will get the scripted treatment: a new miniseries from Surviving R. Kelly executive producer Dream Hampton called Black Wall Street. “Black people from Tulsa have refused to let the Greenwood District Massacre be erased from history. I’m so inspired by their persistence to lift up the stories of what North Tulsa was before the massacre,” Hampton said of the series, which according to the A.V. Club, currently does not have an attached network.
Notably, these projects come years after Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” brought larger attention to the riots and even caught the attention of TV creator Damon Lindelof, who cited it as inspiration for his acclaimed 2019 HBO adaptation of Watchmen.
“At the time that I was sort of approached to consider rethinking Watchmen, I had to answer the question, ‘What is the pervasive sort of anxiety in America right now?’” Lindelof explained to NPR. “And it was impossible, as all these things were happening -- not just Charlottesville but everything was happening through the lens of race and it felt like there was a great reckoning happening in our country, overdue and necessary. This idea that Watchmen has always been about the history that has been kind of hidden and camouflaged, and also it's about the pain and trauma that is sort of buried in the American consciousness. And I started to feel like it was incredibly important to tell a story about race. To not tell a story about race in the context of a political text in 2019 almost felt borderline irresponsible.”
So when it came to writing the series, starring Regina King as one of its titular masked heroes, Lindelof stayed true to the graphic novel’s alternate timeline that parallels America’s ongoing 200-year-plus history. While Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons tackled the Cold War with Russia, the Richard Nixon presidency and Vietnam War, Lindelof took on the racial divide and recent controversies surrounding law enforcement by rooting King’s character, Angela Abar, in the real-life history of Tulsa.
Lindelof told NPR it wasn’t until he read Coates' article that he ever even heard of the massacre and that led him to the book called The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 written by Tim Madigan. “I started to feel that the Tulsa massacre, even though it was built on this incredible, horrible taking of treasure and destruction of an African American utopia in 1921 Oklahoma, I sort of felt like that was an incredibly compelling story we're telling, and it felt like a superhero origin story in some weird way,” Lindelof explained.
The end result is a wildly imaginative series that doesn’t hide the brutality of what happened in real life at the time. According to Vulture, which went deep inside the recreation of the horrifying event, “[T]his scene is key to establishing the reality of Watchmen’s Tulsa setting, where, in the present day, there is a reparations program for descendants of the murdered and displaced victims of the massacre. Championed by President Robert Redford, the so-called 'Redfordations' incur backlash from a Rorschach-inspired racist militia called the Seventh Kavalry; one of Watchmen’s central mysteries arises from an investigation into Kavalry sympathies within the police force. But where Watchmen’s present day eschews neat one-to-one analogies with the real world, its Tulsa sequence is intended as a direct reflection of American history.” It effectively outlined the basis for the series, which continued to reveal connections between 1921 and 2019 throughout its one season.
After the series first premiered, the internet was flooded with headlines like, “Yes, Watchmen's Tulsa Race Massacre Actually Happened,” proving the point of how necessary it was to finally tell this story onscreen and open audiences’ eyes to real-life events that they may not have even known about.
Meanwhile, as we await Hampton, Koroma and Nelson’s projects, Jordan Peele will be picking up the mantle from Lindelof, with his own twisted version of events on HBO’s upcoming series, Lovecraft Country, which is being written for the screen by Misha Green (WGN America’s Underground) and executive produced by J.J. Abrams. Premiering in August on HBO and adapted from Matt Ruff’s gothic horror novel, the series follows a black family in Chicago navigating real-life horrors of racism of the Jim Crow era and supernatural permutations of those evils. Without giving away the twists of the plot, the author heavily cites the 2001 report Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 in his novel and that’s expected to be replicated on screen.
The Tulsa Race Massacre, however, is only the latest example of untold black history in America. Most recently, Harriet Tubman’s story finally made it to the screen with the groundbreaking biopic Harriet written by Kasi Lemons and Gregory Allen Howard, which took decades to make. Prior to that, Green’s Underground was one of the rare onscreen depictions of the American hero, with Aisha Hinds portraying Tubman during her time working as a conductor to free slaves in the short-lived series about escaping slavery. In addition to the Oscar-nominated biopic, a version of the Underground Railroad is being retold in Barry Jenkins’ upcoming limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s alternative history novel for Amazon.
When it came to Tubman’s long journey to the screen, “Nobody thought a slave narrative could make any money, let alone be a hit TV show,” Howard said. “So we're opening people's eyes.” And those eyes will hopefully continue to see more untold stories or buried histories like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 that have remained untold on screen -- until now.