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The opening moments of HBO’s postmodern superhero miniseries Watchmen were nothing short of terrifying: A panicked Black couple and their young son race through the fiery streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, witnessing — and narrowly avoiding — mass slaughter while white supremacists destroy a thriving district commonly referred to as “Black Wall Street.” Since its premiere in October 2019, much has been written about how this five-minute sequence did more to widely introduce audiences to this suppressed moment in history than any school curriculum ever could (not that many, if any, textbooks actually document the real-life Tulsa Race Massacre).
Sepia-toned images and synthesized score cinematize cruelty to amplify the emotional impact of this violence in the Emmy-nominated Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre. Yet, watching History Channel’s two-part documentary (now available on Hulu), my heart also pounded observing 1990s-era archival footage of elderly massacre survivors recounting their flashbulb memories of this long-lasting trauma. “At 9 years old it was most disturbing because I was asleep,” shares one senior woman on grainy videotape. “My mother awakened me, and she told me to get up. She says, ‘Eldoris, Eldoris! Get up so I can get you dressed. The white folks are killing the colored folks.’ ” Eldoris McCondichie’s now decades-old statement, delivered with the poetic clarity and cadence characteristic of the Greatest Generation, underscores the value of listening to, and truly absorbing, actual lived experiences.
An explosive action scene can do wonders to vivificate the past, and so can the testimonies and oral histories of those who actually moved through the horror. These dual nonfiction (Tulsa Burning) and fictionalized (Watchmen) TV depictions work in conjunction not only to resurrect an overlooked historical episode but to distribute the information to millions of people. The legacy of what happened in Tulsa was silenced for nearly a century thanks to hegemonic politics. Television — traditionally and dismissively referred to as “the idiot box” and “the boob tube” — has served to educate countless viewers on events that have been shut out of history books.
At a time when many of our country’s leaders are attempting to restrict the social studies curricula taught in American schools, which include muzzling the accounts of oppressed and excluded peoples in the Black, Native, Latinx, Asian and LGBTQ+ communities, it seems even more vital that television and pop culture continue to embrace this kind of peeled-back story crafting. As such, some of 2020 and 2021’s best TV programs offered visionary retellings of forgotten (or mistold) affairs from the past.
Beyond honoring Tulsa Burning, which was nominated for its writing, music and sound editing, the Emmys also recognized other enlightening period programs such as Lovecraft Country, The Underground Railroad, Bridgerton, The Crown and Pose. In contrast to the 1960s-set The Queen’s Gambit, however, these series don’t merely take place in the past to capture a distinctive cultural moment or a lush era aesthetic. Instead, these shows come with a lesson: They hope to sweep away dusty layers of presumption and misinformation to present different sides of history that viewers thought they knew or never had the chance to know in the first place.
Lovecraft Country and Underground Railroad, for example, employ fantasy tropes to unearth under-explored chronicles of racial abuse in the U.S. HBO’s supernatural drama Lovecraft Country initially follows a group of Black road trippers who drive across the U.S. in the 1950s. Confronting lynching, Jim Crow laws, sundown towns and de facto segregation in the north, the series literalizes these horrors by heavily incorporating gore and the occult into the story. Both Lovecraft Country and Amazon’s Underground Railroad present a sickening fun house mirror reflection of our nation’s relationship with eugenics, racist pseudoscience and the systematic medical abuse of Black people. In its best episode, Amazon’s magical realist limited series alludes to the sagas of real-life racialized forced sterilization when it brings formerly enslaved runaways Cora and Caesar (Thuso Mbedu and Aaron Pierre) to a seemingly safe village that also happens to be absent of Black babies and children.
Bridgerton and The Crown, both from Netflix, at first appear to be narrative foils. The former is mostly lusty and gusty, presenting an unnaturally vibrant kind of preindustrial Merry England where everyone dabbles in some kind of romantic frippery. The latter is often sour and dour, depicting life in mid-20th century Britain as an endless series of grave national crises. But both bring to light secret or overlooked chapters in the British monarchy.
By explicitly casting Golda Rosheuvel, a Black actress, as George III’s wife Queen Charlotte and writing her as a Black royal who ushered in a new wave of racial equity in this alternate version of Regency-era England, the series alludes to historians’ real-life speculation that Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had African ancestry through her Portuguese lineage. (A possibility that seems ever pertinent as Meghan Markle publicly navigates her role within the British royal family.) The Crown, though more reserved in its social justice aims, reframes the sexism and ableism lobbed at Princess Diana (who struggled with mental health issues, including an eating disorder) during some of the most troubled times of her marriage. Showrunner Peter Morgan at large makes you question whether the very existence of the monarchy is an inherent human rights violation against those who must bear its responsibilities.
Unlike royal history or some aspects of Black American history, LGBTQ+ history is rarely taught at all in K-12 schools — for instance, I was in my 20s when I learned of Harvey Milk or the Stonewall Riots. That’s why FX’s Pose, which explores NYC ballroom culture, early trans activism and the AIDS epidemic through the 1980s and ’90s, is a powerful educational tool for viewers. Because trans rights have become a national issue largely within the past 15 years, it’s easy for some cis and nonqueer viewers to forget that trans and nonbinary people have existed long before our current moment. The series importantly centers trans actors and characters in a setting where we don’t often see them: the past. Even reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race folds queer cultural history into its storytelling.
But history is not only something that can be added and removed from the present day like a Velcro accessory. It’s ongoing, in real time. Emmy-nominated documentary Welcome to Chechnya follows Chechen refugees using hidden cameras as they escape Russia during the purges and persecutions of gay men that have been occurring in the region since the late 2010s. The film, which notably uses AI and advanced visual effects to protect the identities of its subjects, highlights that history is living and breathing. As painful as it can be, sometimes we’re lucky enough to see it unfold on camera.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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