All art must be for the end of liberating the masses. A landscape is only good when it shows the oppressor hanging from a tree.— Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down
In the Hugo-nominated sixth episode of Damon Lindelof’s HBO series Watchmen (2019), titled “This Extraordinary Being”, Lindelof and co-writer Jefferson Cord weave together drug-induced, black-and-white memories to tell the story of Will Reeves (Jovan Adepo/Louis Gosset Jr.), one of the first Black police officers in 1930s New York, as he becomes Hooded Justice—America’s first masked vigilante. Within this hero’s origin story, Lindelof and Cord also introduce Will/Hooded Justice’s archenemy: a secret branch of the Ku Klux Klan known as The Cyclops, whose experiments with mesmerism threaten an entire race.
After Will arrives on the scene of a brutal massacre at a Black Harlem movie theater, a woman in tears explains that as the movie started, a bright flickering began to fill the room with lighting flashes, and she heard a voice inside her head telling her to hurt the people around her. As he watches two white men carry the wounded film projector out of the theater, Will realizes what he is up against. “Cyclops”, he explains to fellow masked vigilante Captain Metropolis, “is using film projectors to turn Negros against each other.”
Two years earlier, Jordan Peele hit on a similar theme in his 2017 Oscar-winning film, Get Out. In one of the most pivotal scenes, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented Black photographer visiting the parents of his white girlfriend, returns one night from sneaking a cigarette to find his girlfriend’s mother, Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), waiting for him. She offers him hypnosis—her specialty—to cure his unhealthy addiction. Though he refuses the offer, she ultimately hypnotizes him, commanding him to “sink” into what she calls the Sunken Place. This place, Chris later learns, is where the disembodied minds of the Black people kidnapped by the Armitages float, powerless, after a surgery called Coagula, which puts white clients in control of their Black bodies.
For every Black character in Get Out, the Sunken Place manifests itself in different ways: For Chris, this manifestation is strikingly similar to a movie screen. In fact, in his DVD director’s commentary, Peele states that “the Sunken Place… is a metaphor for the marginalization of the Black horror movie audience.” He goes on to explain that Black audiences “are [a] loyal horror movie fanbase and we’re relegated to the theater, not… the screen. We don’t have representation of our skin in horror films.”
Watchmen and Get Out draw on a similar history of exclusion and vulgarizing of people of color in Hollywood to expose the dangers of the white media apparatus. Rather than simply documenting the systemic failures of Hollywood, both texts awaken their audiences to the ideological power of the overdetermined screens which mediate history and racial experience. In a pivotal moment when Hollywood is responding to shifts in the cultural zeitgeist by increasing representation on the screen, Peele and Lindelof ask that audiences question the authenticity of a system that still lacks diversity both on and off the screen.
Now Sink: Ideology and the Media Apparatus
Forty-three years before Peele created the Sunken Place and Lindelof created the Cyclops, French literary theorist Roland Barthes penned a short essay called “Leaving the Movie Theater”, in which he describes the dreamlike feeling of walking through the streets after watching a film. As his imagined filmgoer walks down the brightly-lit sidewalks, looking for a café, he “walks in silence… a little dazed… he’s sleepy… his body has become something… soft, limp, and he feels disjointed, even… irresponsible. In other words, obviously, he’s coming out of hypnosis” (345).
This “cinematographic hypnosis” shores up a particularly potent analogy: “Has not the image,” worries Barthes, “all the characteristics of the ideological?” (348, original emphasis). Barthes was, of course, not alone in discussing this analogical relationship. Around 1970, film scholars began looking to psychoanalysis and Marxism as means of explaining the ways in which the cinema can influence the minds of its audience. At the center of this apparatus theory, as it became known, was the fear that mass-produced entertainment, particularly film, could inculcate audiences with dominant ideological beliefs.
The originators of apparatus theory, Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Paul Narboni, called for a new kind of film theory centered around the awareness that “every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it” and that “‘what the public wants’ means ‘what the dominant ideology wants'” (688, original emphasis) Their first step in analyzing the media apparatus is recognizing that a film or television series is, above all, a product “manufactured within a given system of economic relations, and involving labour” to produce a commodity “possessing exchange value, which is realized by the sale of tickets and contracts, and governed by the laws of the market” (699).
In considering a film or series as a product of certain industrial constrictions, we need to consider the role that diversity plays (or doesn’t play) on the screen and, more importantly, behind the camera. In the latest of UCLA’s annual reports on diversity in Hollywood films and television, Darnell Hunt finds that although minorities are getting closer to equal representation on the screen, it’s a very different story behind the camera, where writers and directors of color remain severely underrepresented. For example, the report finds that only 1.5 out of 10 film directors and 1.4 out of 10 film writers are people of color. According to the Directors Guild of America, in 2017 (the year Get Out premiered), just five percent of the 237 film directors were African American, while 91 percent were white.
Representation behind the scenes of television series is just as disproportionate, according to UCLA’s 2019 report. For the majority of cable series during the 2016-17 season, people of color directed between less than 10% of episodes. And although the overall minority share of credited writers for cable series increased from 11 percent to 14 percent from the 2015 season to the 2016-17 season, the report states that “people of color would have to nearly triple this share to reach proportionate representation among credited writers.” Overall, Black writers accounted for less than 5% of the 3,817 writers across the shows, despite Black people making up 13% of the population. Even though Hollywood is responding to the success of Black-cast films and series by hiring more actors of color, the underrepresentation behind the camera makes clear that many of these minority characters are being written by white writers.
Peele and Lindelof have been vocal about the lack of diversity in Hollywood and the need for change in the way that stories are told—and in who tells them. Peele’s oft-quoted statement regarding his answer to overrepresentation of certain demographics on the screen came when he spoke at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in March 2019: “I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie. Not that I don’t like white dudes… But I’ve seen that movie.” As Peele explains in the DVD commentary to Get Out, the film is, for him, an answer to the void that Hollywood has unintentionally created though lack of representation of African Americans and their sensibilities.
Sadly, just as Comolli and Narboni wrote in 1970, a film is, at its heart, a commodity governed by the laws of the market; only after Hollywood realizes that a film featuring Black leads could earn money do artists like Peele get their chance. At a lecture to a course on racism, survival, and Black horror aesthetics, Peele admits that the box-office success of Straight Outta Compton (2015) gave him confidence that Get Out could get made.
For Lindelof, a white showrunner, diversity is paramount not only in the writers’ room, but also in the agencies that help staff those rooms. According to a 2017 study by Color of Change, also authored by Darnell Hunt, 91% of showrunners in Hollywood are white, and 69% of those white showrunners have no Black writers in their writers’ rooms. For Watchmen, Lindelof falls into the 4% of white showrunners who have hired three or more Black writers (Christal Henry, Cord Jefferson, and Stacy Osei-Kuffour). In a roundtable discussion with The Hollywood Reporter in which Empire creator Lee Daniels was the only person of color, Lindelof spoke to the lack of diversity on his previous series, accepting full responsibility for every hiring decision that was made.
However, he also points out that when he receives 40 prospective scripts to staff a series, very few of them are by people of color, since “if you walk down the corridors of [the talent agencies] William Morris Endeavor, [Creative Artists Agency], [United Talent Agency], you’re not going to see a lot of black agents, and they’re the ones who are sending me those scripts.” He has thus called for greater diversity and representation “in the executive suite” and in other gatekeeper positions. Lindelof and Peele’s concerns with the underrepresentation of people of color behind the camera are ultimately worked into the fabric of their texts in service of exposing the flaws within the dominant ideology of white Hollywood.
Beware the Cyclops: The Dangers of the White Screen
In Get Out, Chris is inundated with white-dominated screens. Every time he is sent to the Sunken Place, for example, Chris sees in the movie-like screen the white members of the Armitage family: Missy looking in to tell Chris he’s in the Sunken Place; or, later in the film, as he helplessly watches Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) carry him down to the basement, and Rose gazes in to tell him he was one of her favorites. In both scenes, the white character speaks and Chris is silenced. This dynamic is carried onto the other screens that populate the film.
Before she hypnotizes Chris, Missy asks him whether he wants to know how hypnosis works. Chris jokingly offers a cliché image of someone dangling a pocket watch before him. Missy responds by guessing that he must “watch a lot of TV”. Chris responds that he did when he was a kid. This introduction to Chris’s viewing habits is no coincidence; as Missy probes further into the death of his mother, Chris explains that he was watching TV on the night his mother died. As he became more worried about his mother being late from work, he continued to watch the TV, afraid that if he moved, his fears would become reality.
As he falls deeper into a state of heightened suggestibility, the audience sees what Chris remembers: him as a child, seated on the end of his bed, bathed in the white glow of the television. This shot is nearly identical to the shot of Chris in the Sunken Place staring at Missy through the screen. The similarity of these shots extends Peele’s metaphor beyond the movie screen to the household television set.
Near the film’s climax, Chris wakes up in front of another television set in the basement of the Armitage home. This time, he is physically held down by straps. The figures that appear on the screen are, as in the Sunken Place, all white. The first person to appear on the TV set is Roman Armitage (Richard Herd), who introduces the Coagula procedure, accompanied by his white family. Chris is again silent as Roman explains to Chris his “inevitable” fate.
Later, he wakes again to see Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), the blind art dealer, on the screen. As Hudson further elucidates the procedure that will put his brain into Chris’s body, there is yet another shot that mirrors Chris staring out of the Sunken Place, completing a tryptic of shots in which Chris is motionless before a white screen. As Hudson explains, after the surgery, once he is in control of Chris’s body, Chris will be a “passenger, an audience”, thus shoring up yet further Peele’s metaphor of a black audience before a white-dominated screen.
Lindelof and Jefferson take a similar approach in “This Extraordinary Being” to expose the dangers of the white screen, although with an emphasis on the whitewashing of history. Just as its source material contained a comic within a comic, Watchmen has a show within the show. The Ryan Murphy-like “American Hero Story” tells the sensationalized history of the first group of masked vigilante crime fighters, called the Minute Men, of which Hooded Justice was a member.
Halfway through Watchmen’s second episode, most of the main characters sit to watch the premiere of “AHS”. Before audiences even know what they are about to watch, they are warned that “the Federal Communications Commission has determined the following program to be emotionally harmful” due to graphic violence, nudity, and racism. The program is also prefaced with the cryptic caveat that “the views and opinions expressed, including the depictions of persons of color and members of the LGBTQA+ community do not reflect any official policy or position of the US government.”
Before the series-within-the-series begins, the audience is primed to think about depictions of “persons of color” in the show—but the most important person of color in the history of Hooded Justice is not, in fact, depicted at all. “AHS” is narrated by and mainly concerned with Hooded Justice, whose identity is never disclosed in the original comic book. When audiences finally see him take his mask off in the opening scene of “This Extraordinary Being”, the masked hero is white and blue-eyed, played by American Horror Story regular Cheyenne Jackson.
The significance of this reveal lies not in the unmasking itself, but in what is left unmasked: the actual story of who Hooded Justice is. After he is nearly lynched by his fellow white police officers for arresting a white man, Will Reeves walks home through an alley—bruised, bloodied, and filled with rage. He comes across a white couple being attacked by a group of men. In quintessential origin story fashion, Will, still wearing the severed noose, puts the hood back on that he was forced to wear as he was being hanged and crosses the threshold to another world—one in which he can bring about justice unhindered by the color of his skin.
The whitewashing in “AHS” erases not just Will Reeves, but the entire history of racial violence that makes up his origin story. As the episode’s director Stephen Williams told Vanity Fair, along with all of the other things Watchmen is trying to accomplish, the series is intent on “unearthing that part of our collective history that has been neglected, or omitted, like Tulsa 1921, in the pilot… These are all parts of African American history, and obviously, by extension, therefore straight-up American history that have been given short shrift.” Thanks to recent conversations about the whitewashing of historical figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., many have become more critical of the histories we’re taught in the classroom and see on the screen. Lindelof and Jefferson join in this chorus to expose the whitewashing that can take place in popular entertainment.
Peele, Lindelof, and Jefferson foreground the cultural technologies that frame and shape our vision of racism and history, and in doing so, make their audiences aware of the dangers of white screens. But once audiences are made aware of the danger, how do they escape? In an article on Get Out, Michael C. Reiff makes an astounding connection between the Sunken Place and the metaphor of the “horrible pit” Fredrick Douglass uses to describe the mind of the learned slave who is now aware of his oppression.
Douglass laments that “as I writhed under [this new knowledge], I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out” (258-259). So, does Peele give us a way out of the Sunken Place? Do Lindelof and Jefferson give us the stake needed to blind the cyclops and escape? The answers, in both Watchmen and Get Out, lie in the other media at our disposal.