Kellie Carter Jackson
Assistant professor of humanities and Africana studies, Kellie Carter Jackson.
Photo provided by Joshua Barnett

Wellesley’s Kellie Carter Jackson on HBO’s “Watchmen” and Black Actors Making Their Mark in 2020 Emmy Award Nominations

September 19, 2020

On September 20, for the first time in over seven decades of the Emmy Awards, the award ceremony will be held virtually. And that’s not the only first: This awards year, Black actors earned a higher percentage of nominations (34.33 percent) than ever before.

In addition, Watchmen, a show grounded in real-world racism and the deep unease of a country grappling with racial inequality and political strife, scored the most nominations of any show this year, and more than any other limited series in the category since the current rules were established in 2015.

Here, Kellie Carter Jackson, assistant professor of humanities and Africana studies at Wellesley, who praised Watchmen in our wrap-up of favorite books, films, shows, and podcasts of 2019, discusses whether this year’s record number of nominations for Black actors marks structural change in the industry, the ways Watchmen captures American history, how television shapes culture, and how genre-bending texts can help us see reality in new ways.

Does this year’s record number of Black nominees indicate broader structural change within the industry, which has historically under-recognized Black actors, or is it too soon to tell? What signs are you looking for to determine whether real change is underway?

Kellie Carter Jackson: This year I, along with so many others, am impressed by and even hopeful about the rise of Black recognition for Emmy Awards. However, I think it’s still too soon to tell whether this will be a marked shift or an anomaly. I think structural change must be consistent over a long span of time. I like to use the analogy of Barack Obama. One Black president is not a norm, but 45 Black presidents? That’s certainly a difference! We often, and erroneously, like to mark change by pointing to exceptions and not the rule. In the TV and film industry, real change is not just who’s in front of the camera, but who’s behind it, who’s producing it, funding it, and curating our choices. I’m hopeful, but the truth is we are still living in a world of “firsts.” I’d love for a Black person to win and be the 50th or 100th person to win it.

“What makes “Watchmen” revolutionary is the telling of the story—the writers for the show were majority Black. They told this powerful story through the lens of their experiences and historical events.”

Kellie Carter Jackson

You’re a fan of HBO’s Watchmen, which led the pack this year with 26 Emmy nominations. The series opens with the true events of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which white rioters burned down the entire Black neighborhood of Greenwood and killed as many as 300 people. Does the show examine U.S. history in a revolutionary way? How does it complicate or contradict certain American historical myths? 

Carter Jackson: Watchmen should be required viewing, by my standard. It covers so much historically and really focuses on the trauma of racial violence. What makes Watchmen revolutionary is the telling of the story—the writers for the show were majority Black. They told this powerful story through the lens of their experiences and historical events. What happened in Tulsa is no exaggeration.

This vibrant, prosperous Black community was terrorized and firebombed. The scene of airplanes dropping bombs down on the town was real. America has yet to reckon with not only Tulsa, but the scores of Black communities that were destroyed because they dispelled the myth of Black inferiority and white superiority. Black people and their communities were not targeted because they were dysfunctional, but because they were successful and often competed with white economic domination. The real question is how Black people were able to thrive against the seemingly insurmountable odds of white supremacy. Tulsa is America’s story.

How do television shows and films affect the development of American culture? Do television shows reflect cultural values, or do they transmit them?

Carter Jackson: I think TV and film are powerful tools for reflecting and transmitting cultural values. I tell my students that film is like a hammer. It’s a tool. You can take a hammer and build a house. You can take a hammer and destroy a house. You can take a hammer and repair or improve a house. It’s all about how you choose to use the tool, but it can do a great many things. I think we can pinpoint the ways film has been destructive and degrading, such as Birth of Nation, Gone with the Wind, The Help, or Green Book. But you can also see how film can empower a people, like Marvel’s Black Panther or Alex Haley’s Roots or even Watchmen.

In an article for Quartz in 2016, you wrote: “Today, we are finally entering a new phase of the slave narrative, one that is able to tell stories of empowerment and resistance, with complexity and depth.” While Watchmen takes place in the 20th century, after the abolition of slavery in the United States, do you see it fitting within that new narrative phase, or does it belong in some other category?

Carter Jackson: Absolutely, there are so many good, rich, and creative ways to share the Black experience. We need more storytellers who will be bold enough to take chances with a script and create new narratives. We are not the history of constantly combating racism. We can also create worlds where Black people love, lead, win, and fly! It’s an exciting time to be watching TV, and for better or worse, COVID-19 has placed us all in a position to be able to watch more and watch better material.

“Something like “Kindred” or “Watchmen” allows us to intellectually re-imagine a world of possibility. It all starts in our minds, what we think is possible or plausible can create shifts in the culture.”

Kellie Carter Jackson

In the Quartz article, you also wrote: “I’m still waiting for someone to do Octavia Butler’s Kindred, who proved slavery and science fiction are not mutually exclusive genres.” Does Watchmen seem to prove the same thing? How can weaving multiple genres help us better understand our history? Is there something that such genre-bending texts accomplish that more traditional, or single narrative, texts can’t?

Carter Jackson: Right now, I’m watching HBO’s Lovecraft Country. It too takes on race and science fiction and horror. I love it! We need not be wedded to one particular format exclusively. Art is a powerful tool. There are no social movements or political movements without the arts. Something like Kindred or Watchmen allows us to intellectually re-imagine a world of possibility. It all starts in our minds, what we think is possible or plausible can create shifts in the culture. I love being pleasantly surprised by art and seeing how people can experiment. It’s like biting into a cake and realizing there’s a layer of chocolate ganache baked inside! Yes! TV and film should make us excited and find narratives to surprise their audiences in appealing ways.

What do you think the critical and popular success of Watchmen says about the United States in 2020?

Carter Jackson: I think the success of Watchmen speaks to the current dialogue running through just about every American home: The insidiousness of racism should be combated with everything we have. We should finally be past the point of having “conversations” about race. We’ve done that too many times over. We’ve formed commissions that have told us the same lessons over and over again. Watchmen is about taking action. It’s about confronting a horrific past and working to make amends, restitution, and bring forth justice. We should all want justice. I can think of no other TV series that has captured so much of the grief and rage brought on by racism and white supremacy. The good thing is, we don’t have to wait on a superhero or elected official. We can all be the change we want to see.